There are no known mental health experts in pandemics right now – because all of the people alive at this moment have never lived through one. In one sense, we are all grappling through this together and figuring it out one day at a time.
However, there are some genius experts in the field of trauma. A pandemic is categorized as a trauma, and there things that we can do proactively right now to maintain our mental health during this unprecedented time.
On Thursday, I attended a webcast put on by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps the Score” and one of the leading trauma experts in the world. This post is a summary of what I learned in this training, and 99% of these ideas are credited to Dr. van der Kolk. I hope this offers you a sense of validation about things you have been thinking about, while also providing you with practical tools that can help you to remain active, empowered, and hopeful.
Disclaimer: Doctors, nurses, others on the front lines, and people whose families or businesses have been directly touched by Coronovirus are experiencing something that far surpasses the what I’m writing about today. While these tips can still be helpful, I think it’s worth noting that there are varying levels of how this pandemic is impacting people. For the heroes who are out there on the front lines, your experience is going to be vastly different from those of us at home, playing the waiting game. There are supports available to you tailored to your unique experience, and I would recommend looking into EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy). You can search for therapists on psychologytoday.com that specialize in this- there are plenty out there.
Bessel explained that much of the world is in a pretraumatic state; that is, a state of “holding our breath.” We know what’s coming, we know social distancing and isolation is taking a toll on us, but we are in the eye of the storm right now and don’t know exactly what is on the other side. It’s actually quite unusual to have the complete cognitive awareness that you are in the midst of something that could traumatize you. This pandemic is a drawn-out process. While this is undoubtedly a disorienting experience, it’s also positive that we are afforded the ability to have this awareness and proactively do things to buffer the impact of this event on our mental health.
A friend of mine talked to me yesterday about anticipatory anxiety: “I’m okay right now, but will I be so obsessed with germs that it creates distance between me and other people when this is all over? Is this experience going to have long-term consequences such that we don’t want to shake hands with new colleagues or hug old friends anymore?” She has never had anxiety and this has never been a thought for her. The uncertainty and not knowing is a really uncomfortable place to be right now.
Not knowing exactly how this will fully impact us yet is hard to wrap our minds around. Especially when our day-to-day is usually planned with such meticulous attention to detail. Google calendar runs our lives, and the calendar has gone blank. We force our lives to be just so, and then in an event like this, we realize that much of the control we think we have is illusory.
Whew, so that’s a lot to digest.
But stay with me: here’s where hope comes in. There are things we can be doing every single day to maintain resilience, strength, connection, and health that will help us all to recover from this, mentally and physically, when this is all over. And it will eventually be over.
First, we must develop awareness of what is happening.
Then, we must put it into words.
Lastly, we make intentional choices.
Dr. van der Kolk identifies seven preconditions for trauma that we are experiencing right now. Below, you’ll see a brief summary of each condition, and then some specific tools that Bessel recommends to empower you and protect your emotional, physical, and social well-being.