As we begin to navigate and find a new normal over the next few days with both our families and co-workers, we need to remember to be trauma responsive. The definition of trauma often includes the words “overwhelming sense of loss of control.” With the uncertainty the next few days or weeks may hold, we all may feel a loss of control. So, it is important to remember a few things to help us all respond rather than react to what is going on around us and inside us.
If you haven’t heard of the triune brain, let me describe it in very simple terms. We all basically function out of three different areas of our brains- the survival brain, the emotional brain and the thinking brain. The survival brain is best known for the fight, flight, freeze physiological reaction we have whenever we sense real or perceived danger. The emotional brain houses both positive and negative emotions, memories, and the watch tower (the amygdala) that is constantly on the look out for danger in our world and interactions. The watch tower signals the survival brain if it picks up on any threats. Both of these parts of the brain create reactions in our bodies. The thinking part of the brain is the part we use when we respond in a thoughtful way. This is where we can make decisions, inhibit behaviors, and plan our actions. The trick is this: the survival and emotional brain’s reactions trump the ability to respond from the thinking brain. So, if we are highly emotional (positive or negative emotions) or reacting with fight, flight or freeze, we cannot fully access the responsive thinking area of our brain.
That all said, we need to be aware of where we are in our brains. Are we highly aroused with fear or feeling overwhelmed and reacting to people around us? Or are we able to calm the emotion of fear and uncertainty so we can thoughtfully respond? In order to be the calm in this storm, we need to recognize whether we are reacting or responding to what is going on around us and inside us.
To be reactive in this current pandemic is common; it is scary and we can feel the threat of danger lurking at times. So how do we navigate away from the survival and emotional brain in order to respond to our family and co-workers? It starts with safety; we need to feel physically and emotionally safe. Physical safety can mean 1,000 different things to 1,000 different people. Physical safety can be increased by searching for resources and asking questions to find help. One thing that is amazing in these difficult times, we are also hearing of great compassion occurring between strangers or friends. Limiting exposure to news (especially sensationalized headlines) to certain times of the day may help decrease the physiological fear reaction.
Emotional safety can be increased with consistent daily routine. Build in time for what you need to feel safe and what you need to be self-aware in order to keep closer ties to your thinking brain. If you usually commute, try to use that commute time to practice some mindfulness or use some self-care if possible. Make it routine to have short movement breaks to regulate or co-regulate with your family. Keeping a routine helps us feel in control, and the predictability can decrease anxiety.
We also need connection in our lives to stay in the thinking part of our brain. We can get connection with ourselves through awareness of our thoughts, our body sensations, and our behaviors. Mindfulness, yoga, even just quiet moments alone to pause and reflect on ourselves and the work around us can bring connection. Focus on your strengths and find gratitude in what surrounds you. Our inner thoughts have a huge influence on our emotions. Create some positive mantras or self-talk to remind yourself to appreciate life.
Connection with others is vital. In addition to written words, co-workers, friends and family need to hear each other’s voices often. Staying connected when we are supposed to quarantine ourselves will push us to create innovative ways to interact. Make sure you take time to initiate conversations. Ask questions; stop and be present with family, friends and co-workers and then really listen. Most importantly validate any emotion or need they are expressing. Just saying, “It makes sense you would feel that way” can increase understanding and build stronger connections. We all need to feel heard.
Once we feel safe and connected and are in our thinking brain, then we have the possibility of finding meaning in our lives. The calm brings the ability to be curious, to contemplate and to create new ideas and goals. Our calm, thoughtful response can have a ripple effect on those around us. Share what you do to stay in your thinking brain with friends, family and co-workers. Connect and co-regulate.
We are all going to fluctuate between being fearful or overwhelmed and being calm and thoughtful in the near future. Our bodies have a great survival mechanism to keep us safe. We need to build our self-awareness and strive to respond more often than we react. We are all trying to find our new normal for the next few weeks. During that time remember: In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning. -Viktor E. Frankl
May you find some peace among the chaos and connect with yourself, others and the world around you.
Cheryl Step, MS, LPC, NCC, NCSC
Creating Resilience, LLC