As the country begins the process of “opening up” to a post pandemic reality, I am hearing more and more people express their fear about returning to the regular activities that we once gave little to no thought to.
And why wouldn’t we be cautious? After a year of being afraid that we might inadvertently cause harm to ourselves, or others, by the causal act of going to the grocery store, or out to lunch, this seems normal.
While the brain is adaptable, adaptation after a threat isn’t automatic, and it will take some time for the stress we’ve been living under to lessen its grip on us. The American Psychoanalytic Association’s COVID-19 Advisory Team has even given our collective experience a name: Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience (PTSE).
We have all been affected by PTSE, to some degree or another, as we collectively began to worry for the future, retreat into isolation, adopt steep learning curves for engaging in ordinary activities that once came easily. We worried and grieved over the health of loved ones, as well as our own. We felt the frustration of a divided country and the difficulties of finding common ground on something as basic as reality. We felt the pain of witnessing the waning of compassion and communal responsibility.
This has not been an easy ride. And it’s not quite over yet.
Give yourself time to acclimate. As is true of most traumas, the onset was sudden, and we had to move quickly to deal with the threat. Our central nervous systems went from 0 to 100 in a few heartbeats - the switch had been flipped from “normative functioning” to “fight or flight” very quickly.
On the other side of trauma, however, we don’t just resume “business as usual”. While our bodies responded to threat with urgency and immediacy, the deactivation looks more like a dial that must slowly move from 10 down to 1 over time.
The plus side of a collective trauma is that we have one another to process it with, unlike other experiences that happen in shame and secrecy. We know that trauma is best metabolized when we can talk about it in a supportive environment, with others who feel empathic resonance.
Find a space to tell your story and to witness someone else’s. If you find someone who is ruminating or feels stuck in their story, help them find some help through a therapist or a coach.
If ever there was a place to honor transition and practice self-compassion, this is it. We have no template to work with from here, but we do know an awful lot about helping to heal trauma. We may all be feeling our way out of the darkness, but we’re doing it together.
Blessings on your journey,