Things are looking more normal after the slow tumult of the last eighteen months: people are back in shops, restaurants are open and James Bond is back in the cinemas but things are certainly different from how they were before. We cannot un-experience the pandemic, nor the other cataclysmic political, social and climate events that replace one another almost daily in the news. Arguably, change and unrest are more the social norms than the fictions of calm continuity. However, it is new for the whole planet to be under threat at once in one way or another. Combined with the 24/7 accessibility to news, this has a profound effect on people’s sense of safety, their nervous systems and their ability to find solace in community.
Many people have crossed the therapy threshold, of late, feeling greater anxiety than before, lower in mood, more socially isolated and questioning the meaning of things. This is not limited to therapy. It is a common response to collective trauma, especially when this lands on previous trauma or dramatic life changes and loss. The difficulty is exacerbated by people believing that they are the only one, that everyone else is ok and the shame that comes from believing in personal deficiency in a habitual way.
Hypervigilance, anxiety and low mood are the consequences of not having resources to describe things that are too big, too terrible, too pernicious to make sense of. They are appropriate responses to feeling out of control and unsafe. Behaviours that we deem as ‘bad’ might simply be our best attempt to reduce our suffering. When these symptoms and behavioural responses land on personal beliefs about it being our fault, getting it wrong, there being something wrong with us because we’re not coping ‘well’ (whatever that means), we get a vicious cycle of deteriorating mood. As a consequence we often isolate ourselves from others by putting up a front or withdrawing and this in turn reinforces beliefs of personal wrongness and the behavioural attempts to cope with shame and pain.
Shame is the barrier between us and others, and it functions to try and keep us safely part of the group by preventing us from showing or doing anything that may get us kicked out. At times, this is useful, but chronic shame is harmful and prevents us from connecting with others, sources of help and making changes. It’s also not true. There is an important difference between trying to cope with pain and loss and there being something intrinsically defective with our personhood.
Collective trauma requires collective effort in making sense of it and recovering from it. The Covid-19 pandemic has physically separated us from one another and a wariness of people still remains. The threat is ongoing and is not limited to the virus – it’s the threat of sudden disruption to how we’re living, who we’re seeing and where we can go. Different political beliefs about vaccines, Brexit, climate change (to name a few) also widen this separation from others and a sense of continuity. However, in order to recover a sense of safety and to rebuild a nourishing system of meaning, we have to look to one another. We have to talk about what we’ve been through, what we’re going through and try to make sense of the fear and loss we all carry to some degree. This is why art, research, literature and community projects have been the go-to for trauma work. They put into language and symbols what we cannot and allow us to share them with one another. Crucially, this sharing is profoundly de-shaming and actively challenges beliefs about ‘all my fault’ and ‘there is something wrong with only me.’
Similarly, and perhaps this needs to be stated more plainly, current experiences of instability trigger past trauma. This is normal. This is widespread. This is going to happen. For those of us who tend to cope by habitually dismissing our suffering as not being of relevance, it may be helpful to consider that whatever is causing us suffering just is. It’s not up for debate. There is no value in comparative suffering. Like the weather, it just is. Be this separation from family and friends, fear of returning to the office or in person meetings, uncertainty about what the winter holds and fears of another lockdown, difficulty finding work, difficulty finding direction…the list goes on. It just is and it always lands on whatever we have experienced before.
Well, what on earth can we do? First, I think simply recognising what is going on and allowing for the impact it is having on us all is vital. Otherwise we’re hobbling about on one leg but expecting ourselves to be at supreme athletic prowess. Second, reducing the sense of taking it personally is massively helpful. This is not directed at us, and it’s also not our fault. We’re not the only ones. Shame holds us back from the things that can provide solace and interrupts proactive problem solving.
Sharing with others contributes to sense-making, de-shaming, co-regulation of feeling and the comfort of community. If this is a step too far, no problem. Even witnessing others talk about how it is for them via a podcast, a piece of art, an Instagram reel – it still works. We can then activate a silent me too. Funnily enough, this doesn’t always have to be that explicit. Veterans returning from war often find comfort simply sitting with one another playing cards and hanging out. They know that everyone else knows how it is for them and what they’re going through. And this is enough.
Finally, the tried and trusted mindful focus on the here and now is infinitely comforting. Here and now is usually ok. Here and now can be trusted via our sensory experience of it. The trees outside of the window changing colour, the way the light is falling, the steaming mug of coffee – these are real, these are lovely, these are here too. Mindful awareness of our senses helps to cool down fear responses and offers neurobiological nurturing. This then creates a little more room to breathe and be, to connect with ourselves and others and notice what is still ok and possible.
This is not something that can be fixed or something that is going to disappear anytime soon. We’re going to have to adapt to more uncertainty on an ongoing basis and learn to surf the big waves along with the small. For those of us who label uncertainty as threatening and who require structure to feel safe, this is a bumpy ride. If you do require more support, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with the psychology team at The Practice at 322 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.