For one full calendar year today, life as we knew it, has been on hold.
On March 11, 2020 local news stations began announcing the first big changes due to COVID-19. Colleges would begin the transition of classes from in-person to online learning or suspension of classes entirely. News of colleges plans spread among the state, and shortly thereafter K-12 schools followed suit. By March 13, it was no longer safe to visit residential, health care or juvenile centers. Shortly thereafter, restaurants, gyms, coffee shops, hair salons, and many more small businesses were closed. And on March 23, 2020 the first statewide stay-at-home order for all non-essential workers was implemented.
As I write this blog on March 11, 2021, exactly one year since this pandemic struck our mitten state, Nation, and globe, I noticed the presence of one of my first deep exhales since this halt on “real life” had begun. With present news of more and more immune community members, continued increase in vaccination availability, the overall decrease in COVID cases and deaths, and the lifts of some long-awaited restrictions, the light at the end of this very long tunnel appears to be just a little bit brighter.
And it does feel like this year has been a very long tunnel. An almost suspension in time of baited breath, as we vigilantly awaited the next thing that would change or alter our already inconsistent sense of normal.
Chronic stress does this.
Trauma does this.
The traumatic experience is one that consists in its own time, apart from the subject of its infliction. It is characterized by the experience of separation from one’s reality, from one’s identity, and disrupts the homeostasis of an individual and a community.
Robert Macy, President of the International Trauma Center, defines trauma as “an overwhelming demand placed upon the physiological human system.”
When overwhelming demand is placed on us, our body goes into what many of us have heard described as our “fight and flight” response. When experiencing this response our brain does a beautiful job of protecting us from real threat and danger. Our prefrontal cortex, or “rational brain,” shuts down, and our amygdala, or “emotion brain,” revs up. This quick, neurological and unconscious response allows us to fight or flee the saber-toothed tiger that would otherwise win the battle if we spent too much time problem solving our way to safety. So, our amygdala revs up, allowing many thousands of neurological impulses to simultaneously shoot through our body: we tense, we breath shallowly, we grit our teeth, our blood rushes to our vital organs, and we dash to safety. We run and run until the tiger has been lost. Until we are safe. When we reach safety, our bodies signal our brain that it is okay to turn that rational brain back online. We take a deep breath of relief, warmth fills our body, we might even shake a bit if the call was close, and then our body returns to balance.
But what happens when safety is not found? When our body is not able to signal to our brain that the threat has been lost, and we can breathe easy once again? When a life-threatening virus threatens to harm our loved ones and ourselves? When normalcy of life has been suspended, and the return to safety is unanimously unknown?
Deb Dana, creator of Rhythm of Regulation and expert in trauma recovery explains:
Without ongoing opportunities for people to be anchored in systems of safety and to
appropriately exercise the neural circuits of activation and inhibition, the ability of their
autonomic nervous systems to engage, disengage, and reengage efficiently is impaired…
The result of this ongoing dysregulation is felt in physical illnesses, distressed
relationships, altered cognitive abilities, and an ongoing search for safety and relief from
the intensity of inhabiting a system so out of balance.
If you have been feeling any of these effects this past year, you are not alone.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, during the pandemic, 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, as compared to 1 in 10 in 2019. Their recent findings also show an increase in other difficulties and challenges associated with mental health: difficulty sleeping, difficulty eating, experienced increases in alcohol consumption and substance abuse, and worsening pre-existing chronic conditions.
We have been through a lot this year. Our bodies have been asked to maintain balance amidst a uniquely tense and uncertain time in history. Wherever you find yourself today – stressed, relieved, unhappy, grieving. Whatever ways you find yourself coping – extra sleep, extra work, extra rest, extra Netflix. Your body continues to do its best to serve you with what you have right now. And no matter what that is, maybe for now that is okay. Our bodies have done well to protect us; to keep us aware and engaged in the changing dynamics of such a complicated year.
As we continue to look forward into the normal unknown, let us continue to find our way towards balance, regulation and safety, despite our circumstances. I am thankful that even amidst the greatest and most chronic stress, there are moments and opportunities of pause. Moments of deep breath, rest, and relief. Let us notice and move towards more of these moments today.
In their work titled “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” Emily and Amelia Nagoski discuss seven effective ways we can engage our bodies to move through statuses of high stress and emotion. These tried-and-true methods are wonderful ways to regulate our nervous systems and return our bodies to balance:
1. Movement – ANY type of movement constitutes as helpful here. Aerobic and strength training exercises, a gentle walk, dancing alone in your home or with your loved ones, even Progressive Muscle Relaxation registers as physical movement to our brain.
2. Breath work – There are many forms of deep breathing exercises out there. Connecting to our breath is a foundational way to connect to our body’s natural rhythms.
3. Positive social interactions – These can be long, deep conversations with a loved one or as simple as a friendly exchange of smiles with a stranger. Both relieve our stress and provide a sense of shared safety.
4. Laughter – I know we can all attest to the power of deep, belly laughs
5. Affection – Sharing a word of encouragement, a warm embrace, an open posture from and towards another remind us that we are okay and that we’re not alone
6. A big cry – Although the majority of us I’m sure are not particularly fond of crying, studies do show an increase in serotonin levels (our “happy hormones”) in those who have just cried
7. Creative expression – start a project! Build, paint, draw, write, sew, dance, join a theater club, underwater basket weave…there are so many powerful ways to express our creative sides. Find a few that work for you and embrace the clunky journey.
Although these methods are wonderful resources and can bring relief, we understand that there are many factors to achieving a sense of one’s own mental health. If you are experiencing
anxiety, depression, guilt, hopelessness, panic, unending grief, or just feel stuck, consider counseling. A Mental Health Professional will be able to provide personalized and experienced care to best fit your individual or familial needs. At Second Story, we offer a wide variety of experiences and expertise to come along side you in whatever challenges you may be going through. We are here for you.
Dana, Deb. The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy. London, W. W. Norton & Company Publishers,
Kaiser Family Foundation. The Implications of Covid-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use.
Nagoski, Emily, and Amelia Nagoski. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking The Stress Cycle. Ebury
Tennyson DeWitt, MA, LLPC