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Building Resistance to Stress and Trauma
April 14th, 2020

Our country is going through a historical ordeal. The courage, bravery, strength, compassion, and wisdom being exhibited by our doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, first responders, and people continuing to provide services for us is nothing short of inspirational, and we are all incredibly grateful for their efforts. We are all living a life we never imagined, and are caring for our families, our children, our parents, and our neighbors. We will get through this, we will prevail, and we will return to the joys our lives can bring.

However, we need to acknowledge that we are all experiencing stress and trauma, and while getting through this crisis safely is the prime goal, we need to recognize that there will be an emotional toll, both present and future. Fortunately, psychology has studied trauma, and there are things we can do to build up our emotional resilience, and to reduce harmful effects, and those are things we can begin practicing immediately.

Trauma is a complex interaction between events, perception, and personal history. After a traumatic experience it is normal to feel frightened, anxious, sad, isolated. When one feels helpless and hopeless, when events are unpredictable and uncontrollable, we can experience strong and painful emotions. It is essential to acknowledge and affirm each person’s unique reaction to stress and stressful events. What one feels are normal reactions to abnormal events.

Many of you have heard of the term PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). PTSD occurs after a difficult event, and we may very likely see increased PTSD in our society in the future as a result of COVID-19. I believe we are also experiencing a different PTSD – Present Traumatic Stress Disorder. What is essential, and what I will highlight below, is that there are known principles and actions to take which will reduce our negative reactions, and improve mental health, quality of life, and feelings of well being. As you shelter in place, care for your families, here are some guidelines for dealing with the impact of this crisis.

  1. Express Rather than Repress. We will all have a variety of feelings going through this crisis. It is essential to acknowledge and honor your feelings – they are never wrong. They are the products of your thinking and experience, and if your thinking changes, your feelings will change. However, the first step is accepting and not judging your emotional responses. We know there is great value in sharing your inner feelings with a trusted other. The key is finding someone who will validate your feelings, and not try and change them. That level of understanding and acceptance allows one to consider alternative ways of looking at things, and often coming up with a solution. Denying, pushing away, or repressing your feelings may have negative effects later. If you are listening to someone, a non-judgmental ear is often more valuable than advice. I often counsel people that “help not asked for is criticism”, and most of us shut down when we feel criticized.
  2. “What if” vs “What is”. Try and stay in the present. Our minds are capable of projecting off into the future and creating catastrophic scenarios. If you find yourself doing this, focus on what is (the present) rather than what if (the future). When we stay in the present, in what is, we are much more able to feel in control of the situation, and to create realistic action plans.
  3. Helplessness vs. Empowerment. Feeling helpless and hopeless about the future, as some may be experiencing, correlates with feelings of depression and anxiety. At the same time you acknowledge your fears and concerns, you can take inventory of your strengths, and remind yourself of the difficult times you have overcome in the past, and of your strengths and coping skills you possess. One way to reduce hopelessness is to focus on gratitude. Research shows that regular attention to things you are grateful for improves mood. As difficult as things become, you can always find things you are thankful for.
  4. Calm vs. Tense. The more calm you feel, the more capable you are of regulating your emotions and reflecting on solutions. When you feel stressed, you are more likely to focus on basic survival behaviors, and be more reactive and less rational. Fortunately, there are proven and simple methods to calm your body and mind. Everyone can practice these two examples. Pace Breathing – breathe in through your nose, slowly, breathing in for 4-6 seconds, and breathing out slowly for 6-8 second, and do this 4-6 times per minute for 2 or 3 minutes. As you breathe in, picture yourself breathing in relaxation, and as you breathe out, letting go of stress. Pair this exercise with Progressive Muscle Relaxation – as you breathe in, tense a small group of muscles (eg, your fists and arms), and as you breathe out, relax the muscle. In addition, there are numerous apps on line, such as Calm, which have extensive relaxation exercises.
  5. Healthy vs. Unhealthy Habits. Although difficult with the stay at home policy, movement and exercise are important to remaining mentally fit. Make sure your body is moving. Walking while maintaining distance is something everyone can do. With spending so much time at home, we are also eating more at home than usual. Try and maintain your healthy eating habits. Finally, avoid the use of alcohol or other substances as ways of dealing with feelings. The temporary relief may not be worth the problems caused.
  6. In Control vs. Out of Control. Feeling more in control reduces helplessness and hopelessness, which reduces stress and anxiety. Focus on those things which are in your control, and let go of the things which are not in your control. Re-adjust your thinking and assessment of what is important, and what constitutes a good day. By acknowledging the reality of the situation, and accepting it, you will reduce your sense of anxiety and stress. Try and put structure into your life, and set daily goals. The sense of meaning and achievement are ways to make you feel more grounded.

These are but a few ways we can feel empowered, and less helpless in the present situation. There are many more. It is important to know that you are not helpless, that you can do things to improve your situation and your reactions to the crisis. Though the situation is fraught with stress and trauma, you can work on building your resilience and resistance to the negative effects.

Moe Gelbart, PhD, Executive Director of the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center

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