Navigating Trauma During Lockdown
We are in a really unusual time, a time of lockdown and self-isolation. I don’t know about you, but I had never thought that a pandemic would hit and we’d all experience such radical changes in our lifestyle. Each country varies significantly in its response to the crisis and its rules for lockdown. Just as each country varies so does each individual.
There are some impacts of the Corona Virus which are unavoidable, but there are others that you can do something about. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want this situation to steal anything from me, especially when I have the ability to do something which changes the outcome.
Everyone responds differently in a time of crisis, that’s inevitable, we are after all unique. There’s something that we all have in common though we want to get through this to the other side with as little pain and loss as possible.
Dr, Bessel van der Kolk defines a number of preconditions for trauma and they stack up in situations like the one we’re going through globally right now. He lists these as a lack of predictability, immobility, loss of connection, numbing and spacing out, loss of sense of time and sequences, loss of safety and loss of purpose. I’m going to take a look at how we can navigate some of those situations from both a spiritual and a practical point of view.
I want to take a look at six of these basic human needs which have been threatened by what we’re going through. Six things that we’ve lost. Although we can’t control the external circumstances, there are still things that we can do. Things that we can be proactive about so that when we come out of the other side of this storm, we emerge without significant traumatic impact.
There is a downloadable document that accompanies this article.
Loss of Physical Safety
Before we get stuck in, what you need to understand is something about the way that we tick. We all have basic human needs, one of those needs is the feeling of safety.
So, what happens in times like these when there is a question mark over your physical safety anytime you leave your home? Leaving the safe zone can make confident people insecure, it can make strong people feel weak, and it can cause anxiety and stress. That got me thinking, where do I get my sense of security from?
The first place I know I should get my sense of safety from is God. Psalm 46:1 ESV tells us ‘God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble’. I said ‘I should’ because I don’t always do it, once I remember He’s there, He is with me, then I’m fine but every now and again I forget and react. God is faithful through every circumstance, but we need to remind ourselves of that fact just as David reminded himself of it.
In each circumstance of life, there is God’s part and there is our part. Proverbs 27:12 NIV says ‘The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.’ We have our part to play.
I think that growing up in Northern Ireland during the troubles has helped me cope with this crisis. I know this isn’t a terrorist situation, but some things are pretty similar. There is an enemy which is invisible, there is no way to anticipate where they are, but you know they’re around.
There were things we didn’t do, places we didn’t go and groups that we would avoid … just in case. Roy and I lived in a troubled area of Belfast, so we were careful to choose the right time to go shopping. We didn’t feel afraid, but by being practical, we did enhance our feeling of security.
Does that sound familiar? During this Coronavirus pandemic, we have to be proactive about our personal safety. That means different things for different people. For everyone, it should mean cutting out unnecessary journeys and for the most part, staying at home. For others, it will mean donning gloves and a facemask and creating a safety bubble around themselves by social distancing. Some may suit up in full hazmat, and some will look as though they’re preparing for the apocalypse.
Regardless of the way people choose to protect themselves, the fact is that they do. There is an instinctive need for self-protection and physical security. Doing something towards creating a safe zone in a time of danger helps limit the damage trauma can do.
It’s not easy to do that with the current lockdown, but this is something you can do. Create a safe space, you need somewhere you can withdraw to. If you have a bedroom that you can go to for twenty minutes, tell others in the family that it’s a ‘no-bug’ zone. Family members might need to take turns using it. If you are in a more crowded setting, then assign a seat. When you’re in that seat, there is a ‘do not disturb’ sign on it. Obviously, you can’t overdo it, but it’s worthwhile if you need to take a few minutes out to calm down. It can be your own version of the naughty step.
If you’re fortunate enough to be confined with people you love, there are other things that can make you feel safe. Cuddling is one of them. Just think about how a child who is frightened or hurt needs a cuddle from their mummy or daddy, we often need that human contact too.
Loss of Mobility
That doesn’t just mean being in lockdown and not being able to go shopping. Loss of mobility is that feeling of helplessness because there isn’t a lot that we can do about the situation.
If you look at what happened in Italy, as news of the virus spread people left. Many Romanians travelled back to Romania only to discover that they took the virus with them. Why did they leave? Our basic response to something that feels threatening is usually flight or fight. We’re active, and we feel like we need to do something. God reassures us in Exodus 14:14 ‘The LORD himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.” (NLT). The NIV says ‘you need only be still’.
Our bodies response to events like this is to create stress hormones. Unfortunately, that’s why so many people are stressed, but there are ways to stay calm. First of all, reminding ourselves of God’s part. ‘He will fight for us’, secondly to put those stress hormones to better use.
Lots of people are doing just that, people have taken on major DIY projects, they have cleaned their home from top to bottom, they’ve gotten round to doing those unfinished jobs on their lists. The Biblical principle is to build up rather than tear down. ‘A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish woman tears it down with her own hands’. Proverbs 14. So it’s better to do something constructive than let that tension build. If it builds up it can come out in the nastiest of ways, that’s one of the reasons why domestic violence is on the increase. Instead of ‘flight’ which you can’t do because of the restrictions, the ‘fight’ response kicks in.
If you’re in a country that allows you to go out and get exercise, then make sure you do! That sense of escape is really helpful. It is much better than the other ways people tend to escape, for example, by self-medicating. Rather than turning to harmful behaviour or harmful substances, you can control your thoughts, your emotions, and your behaviour in other ways.
One of the best ways to stay calm is by meditating on the word of God. The more we focus on Him and what He can do, the less inclined we are to worry. If we want peace, the secret is keeping our thoughts on God and our trust in Him.
Isaiah 26:3 You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.
Loss of Sense of Security.
In addition to the concerns over physical safety, many have other things to worry about. Perhaps your job is on the line, or your business has been negatively impacted. Ultimately economic instability compounds with the concerns over lack of physical protection and takes a psychological toll.
Many years ago everyone made an effort to save for a rainy day, it’s not a new concept, it’s been a phrase that’s been around since the 1500s. Looking back through history there have been numerous economic threats, some on a grand scale, some on a domestic level; nevertheless, people learned that it was important to set something aside in case disaster struck. If you have a rainy day fund, then you’ve got some security to see you through this hard time.
“Save 3-6 months of expenses in a Rainy Day fund. Know why?
Cause it’s going to rain, and you aren’t the exception”- Dave Ramsey
Having lived in both Northern Ireland and England, I grew up with the sense that rain was inevitable. You plan for it, you carry an umbrella in your handbag and usually have a raincoat within grabbing distance just in case. Now that I live in Hungary, rain is a lot less frequent. In the summer, months can go by without a drop, and it takes us by surprise when it happens. I remember travelling back to the UK once and totally forgot to take a raincoat because I didn’t expect it. It’s been a little bit like that for a lot of people, we’ve gotten used to some level of security.
Saving for potential disasters was especially true before credit cards became people’s rainy day funds. They weren’t so reliant on what they had saved but on their borrowing power. The problem with this strategy is that it leads to further insecurity when the rain finally arrives. The clock ticking on repayments doesn’t give a sense of economic security. If you find yourself in this situation, there is still something you can do. Don’t put your head in the sand, be responsible and contact those you owe to explain the situation. Right now lots of governments are trying to help out those who need to make mortgage payments, repay loans and pay rent.
Philippians 4:6 (NIV) Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
2 Corinthians 9:8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
Loss of Sense of Purpose.
This loss of a sense of purpose is especially true for those who have had work come to a screeching halt. It isn’t easy to adjust, the first few weeks might feel like a bit of a holiday but after that, there is a real danger of loss; loss of significance, loss of identity and loss of purpose.
The last verse I used in the previous section sheds some light on how to regain our purpose. God has promised provision not only so that we have what we need but so that we can ‘abound in every good work’. Abound means to be in excess. There is more than enough to do, but it isn’t binging on Netflix.
If that still leaves you scratching your head and wondering what God wants you to do, then Micah 6:8 might shed some light on it. ‘He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’
There are still things that we can do in lockdown. These principles apply to those outside your home and to those within it. Love justice, so be fair. Love kindness, think of creative ways to show that kindness to others. Walk humbly with your God.
In Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life, he says, ‘True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.’
While psychology would say hold on to your identity and affirm who you are. God would say know who you are in him.
1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Loss of Sense of Time, Sequences and Predictability
Those who still have to go out to work might think that this won’t apply to them, but because a lot of normal life is on hold, it will still impact. Time can feel like it’s dragging, especially when we really want things to get back to normal quickly.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us that ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens’. We have very defined seasons in Hungary, and sometimes it’s difficult to fully embrace the season we’re in. In spring we can’t wait for it to warm up a little. In summer we can’t wait for it to cool down. In Autumn we can’t wait for the snows of winter, and in winter we can’t wait for the first buds to come on the trees and for the blossom.
When a season seems too long, we want to get it finished with as quickly as possible. There have been lots of jokes posted on the internet during this season that express the passage of time. ‘For those losing track, today is blursday the eleventythird of maprilay.’
So what can you do about it? Try and accept the season you’re in. Rather than fighting it or railing against it put in some structure to your day. Make a schedule even if you’re writing down some of the basics. Have a definite time that you wake up. Get up, get washed, get dressed, have breakfast. Put in appointments to phone your friends. If you’re taking a course, do that at a specific time each day. Set up a regular time that you go out and get some exercise rather than just doing it when the mood strikes. Write down when you’re going to watch a movie so that you have something to look forward to. The key is establishing a routine; our body needs it. We need to create a sense of predictability.
Our body clock isn’t one that keeps track of seconds, days, minutes, hours and days but it does have fluctuations. That’s why we can often wake up at the same time every day without an alarm. In the olden days, people woke up at dawn because their bodies responded to the light. Even though we might not be conscious of that now the principle is still the same: our body clock needs light. If you can’t go out, make sure you sit by a window! Dr Annie Curtis explains that “When daylight enters your eyes it sends signals to a specific part of your brain that calibrates the body clock, so getting some daylight in the morning is useful.”
Loss of Connection
Last but not least is the need to stay in touch with people. We are wired for connection. God said that it’s not good for man to be alone. Don’t shut down the communication lines even if you’re feeling low. Connection will lift your spirits. Be proactive! If you sit at home waiting for someone to call you might be disappointed, but if you call someone else you have the opportunity to brighten their day.
It’s normal for us to connect with people, so lockdown is very challenging, especially for extroverts. Even though introverts usually enjoy spending time alone, don’t assume that they’ll be okay with this length of isolation. We all need connection. It’s especially difficult for those who are home alone. We weren’t created to be alone.
There is something significant about seeing people’s faces and hearing their voices. It’s so important to have a visual connection, so where possible, make that happen. We’ve wonderful tools now with social media so let’s interact. Even if you’ve been uncomfortable with it in the past, it’s vital to push through that discomfort and regain the sense of connection.
We’ve been created to expect a response from other people to the emotions that we are feeling. When you cry you get a response, a hug, a comment or a reaction. When you laugh you don’t usually laugh alone, others laugh with you. That’s why reaching out for human connection is so important.
Many elderly don’t have that option; they don’t have technology at their fingertips. If you’re on your way to work or out for your exercise, wave at people, smile at people in their homes. Even as I wrote this I thought, wow that’s creepy but years ago people connected with their neighbours. It’s not spying on them or being nosy about what they have in their homes but looking them in the eye to let them know you’ve seen them and acknowledge their presence.
We aren’t living in the time of the old pandemics; we are in a new era, it’s possible to make connections we just need to remember that it’s possible.
We need to get creative. There are so many things that you can do, family meals, games, storytelling, and playing music with others. I play scrabble over the internet with my Mum, and we both love it. It’s a slow game because I can only post a new word in between breaks, but she knows she’s loved and thought about.
I know that communication is crucial to me. If I know I can reach family members and know that they’re okay, that’s reassuring. I also know that having information is essential, not just any information, accurate information. That gives me a sense of security as well as a sense of connection.
The primary connection we need though is a connection with God. Without knowing His love and care, without feeling his presence, we will feel like something is missing, that life is just not right.
In the middle of this coronavirus pandemic don’t neglect the relationship which is the most important of all!
The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
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