Trauma and Psychological Risks of the Pandemic



We are in unprecedented times. The impact of the pandemic is significant on multiple levels, including psychological, as it contradicts what is familiar and expected in the world leading to confusion and uncertainty.  For some, it may be impairing your ability to cope with all that is happening leading to strong emotional responses like grief, panic, anxiety or depression.

Trauma experts Dr. Peter Levine, PhD and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, MD, recently sat down together (from afar) for an online webinar to discuss the pandemic from the perspective of psychological impact.  They shared their thoughts on some of the primary risks of the COVID19 pandemic as well as what can be done.

A Few Pandemic Psychological Risks

  1. Unpredictability
  2. Immobility
  3. Not being sure who to trust or they know what to do.

No one really knows what’s going to happen or the full scope of impact to our society and world at the hands of the virus.  We are wired to asses threat and not knowing what’s coming makes our brains unable to do that accurately which can lead to chronic  stress.  Our lack of ability to move around in ways we are used to has hindered and removed normal social activities.  These are unnatural states that can feel profoundly disconnecting.  And the lack of a coherent narrative, conflicting information and deep division around the virus itself and what to do about is causing many to feel powerless and scared.

According to Levine and van der Kolk, there are some important things we can do to alleviate the psychological risks above.  They involve reducing physiological distress by gaining mastery where it may feel lost, particularly by getting connected to the body.  Self-regulation and other practices can at least help you gain control over your internal systems within the greater chaotic context.  We all need different ways to calm ourselves.

Some Things You Can Do to Soothe a Trauma Response

  • Establish felt agency by jumping in place.  Movement brings you to the here and now.
  • Self-regulate with touch.  Put your right hand under your arm pit and left hand around the other shoulder for a self-hug.
  • Listen to soothing music.
  • Talk about “physically distancing and socially connecting” rather than “socially distancing” to help bridge the perceived isolation gap.
  • Hold onto your circadian rhythms by keeping a sleep schedule and not going to bed too late.
  • Make contact with someone or something in the morning to start your day; kids, your pet, a text to family or a friend.
  • Create predictability with rituals like, “Every Tuesday and Thursday at 11A I do a virtual yoga class.”

Trauma is about losing a sense of agency so you need to find ways to restore that sense of agency by being in the rhythm of life.  Honor your internal and external rhythms.  You can create internal predictability when there is so little predictability around you.

Trauma recovery is not only about being able to be held by another person – but by yourself.



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