Recovering from Pandemic Stress?: You’re not Alone

I’ve noticed waves of strong emotions in myself recently, along with a confusing mix of wanting time alone with an urge to be around people. I shared this with a group of friends on a text thread and discovered several of them experienced this too, along with feeling more tired than usual and considering big life changes. Perhaps you are experiencing some of this as well.

As more people become vaccinated and COVID case rates generally drop, we enter a new phase related to the collective traumatic stress of the pandemic. There’s a reason PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – occurs after the stressful event. In the midst of traumatic stress, our resources – body, mind and spirit – focus on addressing the immediacy of the stress. In the pandemic this has included adjusting to working, teaching or learning online, managing childcare along with work, coping with tight finances for people who’ve lost jobs, tending to the overwhelm of ill patients for medical professionals, finding new ways to connect with family and/or friends, tending to ill family members, exercising caution with regular activities, along with worrying and wondering how long this global crisis will last. 

We have entered a new phase of uncertainty and recovery. For many people, the immediate danger has passed. They are returning to the office and to social gatherings. But questions and concerns remain. Uncertainty about the impact of variants looms. The border with Canada has not opened. Other countries have different travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. Encounters with people who haven’t been vaccinated pose uncomfortable questions.  

Being around people – especially a larger group in an enclosed space – may not feel safe. Symptoms of anxiety run high. This is an example of a trauma “trigger.” The word “trigger” has become associated with situations that remind us of a traumatic event. A more thorough explanation of this connection may help in understanding present responses.

Trauma, from a standpoint of positive adaptation, provides signals to us about protection. Take a classic example of a relatively vivid and simple trauma: the pain of touching a hot stove the trauma of the pain from the touch makes a strong and lasting imprint on your memory. Seeing a hot stove “triggers” your memory of the pain you experienced when touching it. This protects you from hurting yourself as you avoid touching hot stoves in the future. 

In the case of COVID, the trauma trigger comes from being close to people, especially lots of people in an enclosed space. The knowledge that being close to someone could cause either them to get sick from you unknowingly passing on the virus, or you to get sick from them, causes you to avoid this. Further, the concern about unintentionally passing the virus onto someone we care about who is vulnerable has exacerbated the danger. The risk of this goes up in enclosed spaces and with more people. Caution about this situation is normal, predictable and may last for a long time.

As in the caution of touching a stove, even when we know the stove isn’t hot, we are cautious around stoves as they have caused us pain. Similarly, with the virus, we have become more cautious of being physically close to people, even when we know the danger of the virus has passed. 

Further, I expect that most people, myself included, had not previously considered the possibility that a virus could change nearly everyone’s life so dramatically, extending for over 15 months! We had not thought that schools, restaurants, bars, gyms, offices, hair salons could close for this long. This reality has unearthed a deeper fear – what other catastrophe could disrupt our lives?? We no longer feel able to depend on a predictability we previously thought unlikely to change. Realities of climate change – with dramatic record low and high temperatures, rising sea levels, raging fires, droughts, storms, etc. further compound the feeling of unease and uncertainty. Political conflicts and strife add another layer of unease.

The way our adjustment to the realities of the pandemic have changed us adds another factor in our current time of change. The dramatic increase in real estate prices in suburban areas points to the exodus out of urban areas for many people. You may have learned that you have greater hunger to be around nature than you previously realized. You may have developed more comfort with solitude. Or, perhaps you have become clearer the friendships or family relationships that matter most to you and wish to focus on those. You might be making up for lost time with activities you hadn’t been able to do, or developed an interest in new activities or a different direction for your life. You may be recovering from specific stressors related to the pandemic, which takes time. 

With all of these reactions – fears, uncertainties, anxieties, possibly feelings of sadness and loss – you are not alone. You may feel alone, but you are not! The need for mental health services has grown exponentially in recent months. Finding providers to meet the demand can be challenging. Emotions and physical responses (such as exhaustion) generally surface after the traumatic event passes. You may find yourself feeling emotions unfamiliar to you or at unexpected times. You may have stronger reactions to situations you tolerated before (such as avoiding crowds). You may be more tired than usual. You may begin to consider new directions for your life. Or, someone close to you may surprise you with a sudden shift in their direction. Your interests may change.

These are predictable responses to the time of post traumatic stress. A simple exercise from bioenergetic therapy can help you find greater strength in yourself to weather these challenges. 

The exercise is called “grounding.” Alexander Lowen, MD, who started bioenergetic analysis in the 1950’s developed this. Lowen is credited with getting people off the couch (as in psychoanalysis, which was popular at that time) onto their feet. Currently, bioenergetic therapists use this exercise to invite clients out of the passivity of the chair into a more active positive of standing. Grounding aims to help you feel more solid in yourself through identifying with your body rather than only your mind. In the exercise, focus on listening to your honest, unfiltered body rather than your complex and ambivalent mind. Think of a tree that sinks its roots into the earth. The roots provide stability to the tree, enabling it to remain standing through storms. The tree also draws in water and nutrients through its roots. Like the tree, grounding exercises can help you tolerate uncertainty and decrease anxiety through the storms of life. 

The exercise works best standing, if you are able. (If you are not able to stand, you can also do it sitting.) Put your feet flat on the floor or the ground. Remove your shoes and socks if possible, to increase the contact of your feet with the floor (or ground). Put your feet hip-width apart with your toes facing forward and parallel. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your knees. When straightening your knees, be sure not to lock them, as this cuts off your contact with the ground. Press your feet down onto the floor. Notice your breathing and bring attention to your body. If you are sitting, press your feet down onto the floor and press your butt down onto the chair as you breathe in and relax as you breathe out. 

You can expand the exercise by leaning your upper body forward over your feet. Go slowly if this is new for you. Let your upper body hang. Let your head go. Slowly bend and slowly straighten your legs a few times. Take some deep breaths. Focus on breathing in as your bend and breathing out as you straighten. Continue to press your feet onto the floor. Be sure not to lock your knees. If your legs shake, allow this to happen. This is a natural response to stressing the muscles. When you’re ready to come up, bend your knees, press down and roll up slowly. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded (which can happen if you aren’t used to letting your head go), stamp your feet down. Notice the sensations in your body. 

Generally people report feeling calmer after the exercise. If, however, you notice emotions or feelings that are unfamiliar or cause you discomfort, you might start with writing about them in a journal and/or sharing your feelings with a friend or family member. You may also benefit by seeking help from a mental health professional. 

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