It’s been a hot minute since the pandemic began – ok it has actually been 20 months to the day since we shut down on March 13, 2020.
The result of isolation, wearing masks in public, and living with the stress, loss and chaos of the last 20 months is changes to our entire physical/mental and emotional being.
This situation has done a number on us all and there are some things we need to acknowledge.
We are dealing with extended Trauma.
We can define trauma as an event or situation that exceeds our capacity to cope. I do not know one single person in the last 20 months who hasn’t felt as though their capacity has been exceeded. We are running low on bandwidth and some days it can feel like we have no bandwidth left at all.
Trauma impacts our immune system.
This article on the American Psychological Association website mentions multiple studies that link a weakened immune system to depression in an older population. As well, social isolation and feelings of loneliness each weakened the immune system response in college students.
On top of that our immune systems are playing catch up. Did you get the spring/summer cold that was circulating? It was a WHOPPER. My entire household was brought down by it and several of us were in bed for a few days trying to recover. This article in the New York times shares why, “…our immune systems missed the daily workout of being exposed to a multitude of microbes back when we commuted on subways, spent time at the office, gathered with friends and sent children to day care and school.”
Trauma Changes Our Brain.
When we undergo trauma our brains change in terms of chemistry and structure and thinking. Structures that change include:
Amygdala, which helps us perceive and control our emotions and plays a role in the fear response, and can become increasingly responsive as a result of trauma.
Hippocampus which aids us in memory and learning and can shrink in response to trauma.
Prefrontal Cortex which helps us with executive function and reasoning and can have decreased activity after experiencing extended trauma.
Our brain plays a role in two types of chemicals that are impacted by trauma: Neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, and Hormones include oxytocin, cortisol, and insulin. Combined these two chemicals play huge roles in our mood, our sleep, our weight and blood sugar regulation. When our brain alters the outputs of these chemicals we see it as insomnia, depression, inability to regulate our blood sugar and just simply, feel good on the daily.
Many of us are living in a greater state of hypervigilance as a result of the pandemic. We are in a state where our thinking has changed and we are waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Trauma Changes Our Breath.
Jane Clapp talks about the Diaphragm as ‘the coast is clear muscle’. Our body is constantly scanning our environment to determine if we are safe. When we perceive we are not safe (like we are all doing so much more right now) we will armor up through our deep core. The diaphragm will no longer move like a jellyfish, undulating in our torso, instead becoming more rigid, acting like a stabilizer muscle. That means we alter our breath and begin to use our secondary muscles of respiration more.
We breathe higher up in the chest, our breath rate increases and we will inhale longer than we exhale. Sometimes we even start holding our breath in – this is the bodies way of waiting for the next bad thing to happen. All of this causes changes in the balance of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide in the body.
In the words of Daniela from In The Heights…
That’s a Piece of Shitty News.
If this all sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. You have been living with a lot. We all have.
There are lots of communities in our world who live with this level of persistent trauma on a regular basis. Many of us are among the privileged who are encountering this type of prolonged stress punctuated by moments of extremely high stress for the first time.
We are past the point of just going for a walk, or taking a deep breath and getting on with our day. We are past the typical fluffy self care practices promoted to us on the regular.
So Where Are We?
We are here, smack dab in the messy middle where we have to choose to make the Herculean effort at instituting regular work that addresses and mitigates the impacts of ongoing trauma on our system.
For me that means somatic practices. I could talk about all that has transpired in the last 20 months, but none of that talk will address the knowingness my body holds about what I have lived through. I have to go into that knowingness and be with it before asking it to change.
This looks like:
Making the smallest movement possible, like wiggling my fingers and noticing how my body feels.
Asking the question, “how do I feel today?” and observing what I feel in my body and breath in response.
Letting my eyes move back in the eye sockets as my gaze widens, noticing how my breath and body change in response. It’s then bringing my eyes forward forward in the eye sockets, narrowing my gaze to see how my body responds.
It’s bringing my hand onto my sternum under my shirt and dragging it slowly down towards my solar plexus 10 times and noticing how I feel after.
In addition to these practices, I take slow walks in the woods, or just around my neighborhood. I get off social media regularly. I phone a friend who I know will just listen and not try to problem solve. My family has developed clear practices around connection that we do nearly daily – card games, reading aloud, game nights and movie nights. It’s breath work after I have moved to address my tendancy to hold my breath and over breathe. I’m working on finding gratitude for the simple things like blue sky, running water and a roof over my head. I’m working on fewer visits to the snack cabinet and pausing to feel my breath in my nose instead.
It’s also acceptance that there will be times when I am over capacity because I am a human being.
These might feel like a mere drop in the bucket. But, like a leaky faucet and your water bill, these drops add up. We rebuild our capacity one drop at a time.
If you’d like to talk more about practices that can help you move through this time in our world, please reach out and let’s talk. You aren’t alone.