The current coronavirus pandemic is a traumatic event for many of us. Trauma is defined as “… any experience that is stressful enough to leave us feeling helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, or profoundly unsafe.” (Pat Ogden). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) states that trauma “… can happen through either directly experiencing the event, witnessing the event, worrying it happened to a close friend or relative, or through repeated exposure …” How we are affected by a trauma is highly personal – what greatly affects one person in an ongoing way may have less impact for a shorter period of time for another person. We’re all having our unique experiences of the coronavirus pandemic.
Landmarks of Emotions
During and after a traumatic event, our body works hard to adapt to what is happening by taking on an emotional response geared at finding safety and survival. Our system has a number of options in determining the emotional response that is best for a situation. In order to process an experience our system can visit a number of different landmarks of emotion to help us integrate it into our understanding of who we are in the world. Through visiting these landmarks, we can move forward with the learnings from the experience, ready to face future challenges as an older, wiser being.
Cascade of strategies
Below are the emotional landmarks or places in our internal landscape we might visit when faced with a traumatic or challenging event:
- Challenge: Choosing and mobilizing our internal emotional resources successfully to maintain our equilibrium.
- In-Choice Reach: In an empowered way, reaching out to others who can support us and collaborate with us in adapting to the stress.
- Out-of-Choice Reach: Reaching out to others to rescue us from our stress because we feel disempowered.
- Defend: Fighting, arguing or pushing toward the source of our stress (fight) or running away (flight).
- Overwhelm: Feeling immobilized and shutting down, feeling stunned, or checking out.
Integrating our experience into our understanding of ourselves in the world involves moving through these landmarks back to a place where we feel we are in choice: back to Challenge, In-Choice Reach or to the sixth landmark:
- Rest: Feeling easeful, effortless and in choice.
Below are some possible effects of our experience of the coronavirus pandemic. In identifying the effects we are experiencing right now, and where we are in our internal landscape, we can move toward addressing those effects and toward integration of this traumatic event.
When I am in the landmark of Overwhelm, I am immobilized and I’m silent about my experience. I don’t know what to say because I’m trying to orient to the new event. I am stunned, looking for ways to work out where I am, to get my bearings, trying to work our what I need to do to start to transition from what I understood about my place in the world before coronavirus to a new, unfolding understanding of a new way of being. In our community it seemed many of us went through a quiet time of overwhelm and attempts at orienting during the week that the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that coronavirus was a pandemic.
Defend and Out-of-Choice Reach
After feeling overwhelmed and immobilized, I start to mobilize. I feel angry, frightened and hurt by my experience. This can lead me to a number of responses:
- I might reach out to others in a reflexive, reactive and disempowered way (Out-of-Choice Reach) in order to find validation of my experience, offloading my emotions in an attempt to get the challenging feelings out of my system.
- I might run away from, reject or isolate from others out of fear (Defend or flee), especially those I feel won’t support me, who might make me feel worse, or who I feel don’t understand me.
- I might blame or shame others who I feel are responsible for the situation and for my feelings of hurt (Defend or fight) including the government, other countries, human beings in general, and modern society. I might also want to blame or shame others who I feel aren’t validating my experience or who don’t understand me.
Mobilization through Defend or Out-of-Choice Reach is a great relief from feeling immobilized, and the power of this mobilizing energy might be quite strong. Media sources that gain our attention through exploiting our fears are often employing fight, flight or offloading tactics through inviting us to blame or reject others and engaging in uneducated speculation on what might be happening.
It’s important to know that I likely need to go through this process in order to integrate the traumatic experience. Being able to finally move is something to celebrate and honor. There might be no energy more powerful than Out-of-Choice Reach and Defend energy. It’s also important to know that these landmarks can lead to things like overexposing myself while sharing in community, panic buying, excessive fear of connection, or getting angry at others for what I perceive to be greed and lack of self-control. Mindfulness allows me to see these impulses and to titrate how I allow this energy to move through me. Maybe going for a brisk walk or a run, dancing, or shaking my body are just as effective in metabolizing the cortisol I’m feeling as acting in an uncontrolled way on my impulses.
While moving between Overwhelm and Defend/Out-of-Choice Reach, I might feel the push and pull between staying silent and talking about the personal effects of the pandemic as I move between feeling immobilized and feeling mobilized. While at one moment it seems a good idea to share about my experience, at another moment I may regret having exposed myself in this way and this might put me at risk of feeling shame. Also, a particular group or person might not be able to hold my experience and support me in the way that I need and deserve support. I might consider withdrawing from sources of community support if I feel that others aren’t as worried as I am, aren’t as calm as I am, or are triggering me through telling me about their experience. If I feel a lack of common humanity around my experience, it might lead me to socially distance myself.
This is when I can draw on resources like body awareness and mindfulness to tap in to what I’m feeling and what I need, and sensory modulation and soothing self-talk to support me in connecting with and tending to myself. This might bring me enough stability to move back into choice and self-empowerment and on to the landmarks of In-Choice Reach, Challenge and maybe even Rest (although my definition of Rest may have shifted relative to changing levels of community and personal anxiety right now).
When I am in In-Choice Reach my awareness moves to a more introspective place and I’m able to connect with myself and with others in common humanity and self-empowerment. My conversations with myself and with others has a tone of connection, pragmatism, resourcing, and hope. I begin to process and integrate my story: I am making meaning from it and identifying the learnings. I can talk about my experience within a context of my wider understandings about my place in the world.
I start to identify the effects of the pandemic on my own life, and to take considered actions to address these effects through things like researching credible sources of information, making solid plans to take care of myself and my loved ones now and into the future, thinking strategically about how to pivot my business direction, and making financial plans.
The Defend and Out-of-Choice Reach energy is no longer looking for reactive ways to express itself and I can choose to metabolize this energy through cortisol-discharging physical activity or through connecting compassionately with myself, my community, nature, and my spiritual practice. I am able to express my energy in an effective, boundaried, thoughtful way.
Once I have made my plans and am able to find equilibrium relatively consistently, I am successfully in the landmark of Challenge. Some of my resources will be new (like socializing through physical distancing or online platforms), in response to learning how to support myself through processing the new experience. It’s not easy, but I have the tools needed to tend to my needs and and even to thrive.
I don’t feel the need to talk about the effects of the pandemic on my own life so much, except when it supports someone else’s process. I may turn my trauma experience learning into a form of service in the world, expanding my awareness to my community and offering my gifts and talents to support others.
Movement toward healing and integration
Movement through the Landmarks of Emotions points to the natural tendency of our system to heal – our body wants us to move from being immobilized and overwhelmed back through some of the other landmarks to a place of connection and expansion. Some of the keys to safety in navigating through this path in community include:
- talking about these stages/landmarks,
- validating the landmarks,
- validating the need to share in the right environment,
- honoring the different landmarks each of us might be near,
- validating the importance of processing mobilization energy through connection, compassion and physical movement,
- celebrating movement between these stages/landmarks on the path of healing.
The Cyclical Nature of Integration
Integrating a trauma experience into our understanding of ourselves in the world might involve visiting these landmarks a number of times – this is not a linear path. What might change is the intensity and duration of time we visit a particular landmark. It’s important to validate this. It’s not a sign of failure if we feel we are sliding toward Overwhelm, Out-of-Choice Reach or Defend again after having visiting In-Choice Reach, Challenge and Rest. We can feel regulated at one point and immobilized at a later point. This is not failure – this is our system working to integrate and being very thorough in the process, returning to what needs to be returned to.
Through educating ourselves about the landmarks and developing the skills of mindfulness, body awareness and self-compassion, we can navigate our way through this current crisis.
Adapted from material in:
- Arbon, K.S. & Duncan, S. (2020) Somatic Self-Compassion Companion Notes
- Forner, C.C. (2017) Dissociation, Mindfulness and Creative Meditations: Trauma-Informed Practices to Facilitate Growth
- Kraybill, O.G. Expressive Trauma Integration model eti.training
- Levine, P.A. (2010) In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness
- Luckner, J.L. & Nadler, R.S. (1997) Processing the experience: Strategies to Enhance and Generalize Learning
- Matsakis, A. (2003) The Rape Recovery Handbook: Step-by-Step Help for Survivors of Sexual Assault.
- Porges, S.W. (2017) The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe
- Siegel, D.J. (2012) The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are
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