Written By Nicole Ponce, LPC, LCDC
“Collective trauma” is a term that has been thrown around a lot recently to describe what we are all experiencing as a society, dealing with the recent coronavirus, or COVID-19. While trauma is not a new concept in the mental health world, many are just now understanding how an event can alter their mood, self-concept and views on reality. So, what does it mean to experience a trauma and how do we begin to heal from it?
Trauma is an event or series of events, that is too difficult for our brain to fully process. This difficulty in processing can cause our brain to respond in a series of ways, but the main one I want to focus on today is the feeling of powerlessness that can occur.
When someone is experiencing trauma, they tend to lose the control or power that they believed they had before the event. For example, with COVID-19, many have lost power over their ability to make ends meet, their choice in how to connect to their loved ones, their schedule and structure, and for some, their sense of safety in their bodies due to poor health.
With any loss, people go through a process of grief. Here is what the grief process may look like during this time:
- Denial. Denial just means that someone is struggling to accept a new reality and trying to maintain the reality that they had prior to the loss. Right now, it can take the form of saying, “this isn’t that bad,” or, “everyone is overreacting.” It can also look like shutting down, such as binge-watching television, disengaging from the world and oversleeping. This is the brain’s way of not having to experience the current reality.
- Anger. Anger is the brain’s way of feeling more powerful and not having to experience the underlying emotions, such as pain or sadness. Anger can often look like feeling on edge, lashing out or placing blame. Anger is a normal defense mechanism but can be damaging to relationships and views of oneself.
- Sadness. Sadness is an emotion that prompts people to process a loss. It can feel like wanting to cry, having a depressed mood and feeling low in energy. When feeling sadness, it is important to identify the loss that is causing one to feel sad, to process it with someone and to move forward.
- Bargaining. Bargaining is another way that someone unconsciously tries to gain feelings of control over the loss. Bargaining can look like making deals with oneself, such as, “Well, I’ll wear a mask in public, as long as I don’t have to stop visiting my parents.” It can even look like making deals with a higher power, such as, “If you make this all stop, then I’ll promise to be a better person.”
Acceptance. Acceptance is the last stage of grief. Though, it is important to note that people can experience the stages of grief multiple times and in various orders. Acceptance means that someone has accepted the loss and is moving forward with their new reality.
The grief process can be helpful to navigate processing a loss. However, when someone experiences a trauma, they may process their loss of power to the extreme and end up living as if they are more powerless than they are. While humans certainly cannot control many things, they do have a lot of power within themselves.
Here are some tips on beginning to regain power for yourself:
- Create structure. Whether it is a strict structure or loose structure, having a routine can help us to feel more in control of our daily living. We are either living a conscious or unconscious program, so consciously create what you want in your day.
- Discover where you feel powerful and increase those experiences. If you feel powerful in your body, then increase that through exercise, healthy eating or taking rest. If you feel powerful in nature, then take nature walks or sit and be present outdoors. If you feel powerful in your creativity, then make art, create fun meals or play music. There are so many different avenues to be able to create positive and powerful experiences for yourself.
- Experience connection. We are a herd species, meaning that we are biologically wired for connection. Social distancing has made this more difficult, but not impossible. Plan “dates” with your friends. This can be as simple as watching Netflix together, playing virtual games, or even eating meals while talking over video-chat. It is difficult to process loss on our own and creating connections can open the opportunity to move forward positively.
- Respond to your emotions. Emotions have a way of making themselves heard if people do not acknowledge and respond to them. The more you become aware of and acknowledge the emotions you feel, the more you will be able to gain power over your responses to them.
Everyone will process traumatic experiences differently and these are just some helpful hints that may make the process easier.
Many people get stuck in the process and struggle to move forward toward daily living. If you feel stuck, or just need some guidance through the process of healing, please reach out to a mental health professional.