Re-establishing feelings of safety and connection.
Posted Aug 22, 2020
Source: Dylan Nolte/Unsplash
During the recent pandemic, efforts have been made to restrict the surge of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Americans have had to change their lifestyles in order to stop the spread of the virus. Wearing a mask, washing our hands carefully, social distancing, and physically separating from others are the recommended interventions to protect ourselves and others from the virus.
However, quarantine has led to numerous interruptions in our daily lifestyles, including alteration of daily routine, physical isolation from family and friends, avoidance of public spaces, from libraries to malls, inability to worship in community, loss of employment, and disruption of education. The unintended secondary consequences for many include financial problems due to job loss, boredom, managing work and caring for children who are no longer in school, and fear of contagion.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, with the number of cases rising and the death toll increasing, sadly, for many Americans, loss of a loved one is compounded by restrictions on funerals and gatherings intended to provide support to the survivors, pay respects to those who have died, and mourn in community. In addition, many people who survive COVID-19 face long-term health consequences such as neurological damage and lung, kidney, and heart problems.
For many of my clients, there are unintended mental health consequences associated with the psychological stressors and the restrictions used to curb the pandemic. These include depression, anxiety, anger, hopelessness, fear, and post-traumatic stress (PTSD).
One of the primary recommendations for squelching the spread of the virus is to social distance by keeping physically separate from others. Many of my clients have not been able to see their elderly parents, older children, and/or friends because they are either in a high-risk group and/or may be asymptomatic and unwitting carriers of the virus. This loss of physical contact, coupled with lifestyle restrictions and not being able to socialize with our primary support systems, has taken its toll on the psychological well-being of many.
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My clients who are survivors of childhood trauma are experiencing compounded emotional and psychological consequences. A number of them have come to me feeling fragile, easily overwhelmed, and overly emotional without any specific reason.
One of my clients, Jenn, expressed being angry at her partner, family members, friends, colleagues, and random people on the street. Her generalized feelings of anger were a concern because she found herself being “snappy” to those closest to her and it was not how she wanted to act with those that she loved, especially since they were quarantined in the same space. She was unable to get to sleep and was hyper-vigilant and reactive. She spoke in a high-pitched voice and was controlling when interacting with others. On several occasions, her husband asked her to lower her voice and calm down which only made her angrier, further disconnecting herself from those she loved. While working at home, she tried to micromanage the care of the children and the household chores. Jen was not even aware of her behaviors until one of her children asked, “Mommy, why are you so angry?”
In our session, Jenn was asked to take a moment to slow down, breathe, and go into her body. In slowing down, Jenn’s tightly held body was able to relax and she began to cry. She realized that although her outer expression was anger and control, her internal state was one of feeling lost, scared, and powerless.
Another client, Amelia stated, “I generally feel vulnerable and unprotected, like I have no barriers or defense between me and what is going on in the world. I feel like I am taking on all the negativity and fear around me and I cannot shake it.” In one particular session, we focused on why she was having difficulty wearing a mask on her face. She complained the mask made it difficult to breathe and she could not take in enough oxygen, which put her on the edge of having a panic attack. During the session, she realized that the mask covering her face provoked early childhood memories when her perpetrator covered her face with his hand. When the connection between wearing the mask and the strong feelings the mask triggered was understood, together we were able to make sense and employ strategies to manage her stress reactions and panic.
Some of the Survivor Moms I work with can easily become physiologically dysregulated in times of stress. Growing up with abuse and stressful experiences, their bodies are primed to resort to fight/flight or collapse when their resilience and reserves are overly burdened. Both stress reactions make it virtually impossible to stay in the present time, think clearly, and make good judgments. In other words, current stressors related to the coronavirus can trigger unhealed wounds of the past and the person’s system becomes hijacked and returns to survival mode.
In order to support resilient capacities, it is important to reset the autonomic nervous system so that the person feels safe and secure.
The two most important things Moms can do to offset the disruption caused by the upheaval in our lives is to create and foster connections with others and to re-structure daily routines that have been interrupted by the pandemic. To re-establish feelings of safety and security, it is critical that we connect to others and have a consistent and predicable structure to guide our day. The number one thing that a person can do to cultivate their resilient capacities is to increase their support systems by surrounding themselves with caring people whom they trust and who have the capacity to listen, express kindness, be caring and attentive. In fact, research shows that for survival, we need safe and nurturing connections to others – it is a biological necessity.
Besides losing physical contact with family and friends, the pandemic and subsequent quarantine have disrupted our daily lives. Gyms, stores, movie theaters, libraries, and restaurants have been closed and our lives have been hampered. For Survivor Moms, there are the added responsibilities of caring for children who are no longer in school, managing work responsibilities as frontline workers or working from home, and, for many Moms, dealing with the economic uncertainties caused by losing their jobs due to shutdowns and closings.
To support resiliency, it is important that Moms create a new structure for themselves and children. We all thrive with predictability because it brings focus and a sense of control. In times of vulnerability, having clear guidelines and expectations to manage our daily lives helps to squelch anxiety and promote a sense of safety. Simple daily activities like going to sleep and waking up at a similar time, having set meal times, and engaging in exercise at consistent times will help promote a sense of continuity, familiarity, and safety.
Despite social distancing, we can use the telephone and computer to maintain contact with people who are important to us. Staying physically distant from our friends and family does not mean that we have to be emotionally distant. At times like these, we need connections with others more than ever.
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