Making Sense of Modern Life
Thoughts from coping with trauma, C-PTSD, and Corona
We’ve got a lot of stuff going off right now. Never before have this many people faced a global catastrophe together. During the Spanish flu in 1918, the global population was a quarter what we have now. COVID-19 is a global pandemic with states ordering their citizens to shelter in place. There is a nonstop live feed and unprecedented statistical tools that allow us to see success and failure play out real time.
As a result, we’re having functional and ideological flaws (and features) pointed out in our governments, healthcare systems, and our global economic systems all at once. Senators & CEOs jumped ship ahead of the impending economic downturn. The Fed is using their buying power to withhold protective supplies from states in a power grab, and hospitals are approaching capacity. Already the US corona virus death toll (4,513 as of 4/2/20) surpassed that of September 11th (2,977), and this is only the beginning. That’s a lot of instability all at once, It’s only natural that a lot of folks would be scared.
However, one group of us is remaining remarkably calm; folks with a history of trauma. Why might PTSD make us calm, when the rest of our life we’re dealing with hair trigger fear responses? I am not a therapist, nor a doctor, but I suspect it’s because the context of the world around us matches our endocrine response, and we are practiced at coping. We are able to to use the same skills that we practice every day to manage the disillusionment and fear associated with this pandemic. In short, it’s not our first rodeo. Lets take a few minutes to practice what many of us with C-PTSD do day-in, day-out.
First, put everything else down and check in with yourself. What are you feeling? Where in your body are you feeling it? Are you in a mental loop? Are you catastrophizing?
Take a couple slow deep breaths. Whatever you may have been doing yesterday or even five minutes ago is over. We are dealing with this now.
Look around you: name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you hear, two things you can smell, and someone that you love
Okay. Now what I say next is going to seem a little harsh so bear with me for a minute. There’s a reason, I promise.
Recognize that you are going to die.
So will everyone you know, and everyone you don’t know. This is impossible to avoid. It is the one guaranteed in life. None of us get out of it alive. This was always the case. This will likely always be the case. We go through our lives and think we have control over these things, and while to some degree we do, there is always the possibility of a car crash, a fire, slipping in the bathtub, on the stairs, or a stroke. We are delicate fragile things, and our lives go by far quicker than seems fair.
Look that reality in the face. Recognize it. Accept that in the end we do not have control.
Are you still breathing?
Take another deep breath.
All the way in.
Hold it for a second or two.
Now, realize that while you might not have control over the world at large, you may be able to have control over your responses. If you pay attention, do basic self care, and check-in with yourself regularly, you can continue to behave in a caring and rational manner through any threat. All that changes as soon as you give in to fear, and try to control the situation.
When people panic, they respond with a few common behaviors: flight, fight, freeze, and fawn. Any one of these may actually be the most appropriate response to a given situation, but not necessarily. When you act in a panicked state, you tend to go with whichever response is most familiar and practiced. It’s really important to stop and notice your behavior so you act instead of react. Using an incorrect tactic is as likely to cause more problems as it is to solve any. Even with the correct tactic, you can take a response too far; better to scope your response to the threat of the moment. In order to do that, you have to notice what you and those around you are thinking and doing.
Flight can be a great response in many instances. If there’s a gunman in your building the overwhelming advice from law enforcement professionals is to get as far away as quickly as possible. If a building is on fire, again escape. Flight is useful, and it also can be a problem. Some things you can’t out run, and then you just have your back to the problem.
Flight right now is gonna look a lot like denial. Folks pretend COVID isn’t really an issue, ignore health professionals, and continue to assemble. Folks who avoid may or may not get sick, but they’re likely to infect others, whose immune systems might not be as strong. You do not want to be responsible for killing a loved one by holding a cavalier attitude. Denial also accelerates the speed of transmission meaning more people will be sick at once, with a fixed number of hospital beds. Italy was forced to make some horrible choices. Better to be safe, not just for yourself but for others around you.
So how about fighting? Well, sometimes you fight the wrong entity. Lashing out in the wrong direction just means more conflict when you desperately need to conserve resources. If you do get the right target, there’s also no guarantee that you will always overcome the threat. It’s why self-defense instructors always advise avoidance of conflict first. There’s always someone bigger and tougher than you. Viruses don’t care what you pack or who you know. Folks who are panicking and fight the wrong target right now have gone overboard, buying out things like cleaning supplies that only work if everyone has enough. Others use bad strategies like quack remedies, and delay real treatment. Worse still, they can dive into racism, and take out their fears on minorities. None of this stops or slows the spread of this virus. It just means hurting innocent folks. If you’re going to fight, do it prepared, and effectively while knowing that you will not win every battle.
When you freeze, you do nothing at all. You just clench up and wait for it to end. It may work through this pandemic if you never leave the house. It also might mean, not getting care when you need it, not getting supplies before you come down with corona, and spreading it once you’re sick.
Fawning means that you try to placate the threat. In abuse situations it looks like Stockholm syndrome. Victims take the side of their abuser and try to please them. I’m not sure how you fawn over a virus, if you have ideas, share them in the comments. I suspect we’ll see more of this in response to our leaders, and social systems: an economy that is virtually collapsing, politicians who fire the folks responsible for tracking and responding to threats like this, and dismissal of potential threats and solutions because of ideological attachment to specific economic philosophies, or party politics. Corona doesn’t care which party you are in. It’ll kill you either way.
In each case, these tactics can be usefully and appropriately applied. The real trouble starts when we’re acting from panic and fear. So how do we stop it? If we look to coping strategies in mental health, there are a few critical steps; I walked you through an example at the beginning of this.
- Notice — What am I feeling right now? Where is it in my body? Can I breath “into” that part of me? What happens when I do?
- Assess — Have I taken care of essentials? When’s the last time I ate, drank water, exercised, slept, left my house, or saw a loved one? Am I thinking catastrophically? Is my response appropriate to the situation? Am I blaming people inappropriately What can I safely do right now? Am I considering others? Am I avoiding something I need to address?
- Act — Carefully and conscientiously choose from a place of power. Usually by the time we’ve done step two a few things have popped out. Once we do them, things rarely look so bleak.
Lastly we have worry, the most useless of games. To quote Newt Scamander, from J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to find them:
“Worrying means you suffer twice.”
“If good things are coming, they will be a pleasant surprise,” said the seer. “If bad things are, and you know in advance, you will suffer greatly before they even occur.”
“Don’t Worry, Be happy!”
If we do the best we can and manage our circumstances, then there is nothing else to do. Worrying will just depress your immune system, rob your sleep, and leave you less prepared when crisis comes to your door.
Which brings us to the Lord of the Rings:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Tolkein was writing about World War II, but this is not so dissimilar. We are a world at war, not with each other, but with this virus and ourselves. If we follow the guidelines of experts in disease it will go smoother and there will be fewer casualties. If we fight expertise, it will get worse. We can spend this time trying to lift each other up, and protect each other, or we can spend it trying to horde for ourselves, and gain power. The later will only cause more problems for all. It’s fair to be afraid right now. It is not fair to let that fear drive us to cruelty, and indifference.