As we go into the second wave of this pandemic, we need to remember that our mental health is going to be our biggest resource to get us through. Life in Harmony’s Sabrina Golchin shares her experiences of trauma, mental health, and healing over the course of the pandemic for World Mental Health Day. We hope these reflections will help you navigate your own experiences of the pandemic.
It’s 4:30 PM, on Thursday before Spring Break. I am just finishing up my day as my colleague tells me, “did you know they shut down the schools for the next few weeks?”
The schools are shutting down? Here I was contemplating if I should go on my March trip scheduled in 3 days. This is serious. I get to the grocery store, and it is jam packed. As I panic, I find myself loading up 2 carts with essential and non essentials food items. Some of which I know I will never use. I find myself buying them anyway.
I have a passing thought about being so close to all these people in the line up and store isles. I let the thought flee. Afterall, I have no time to think about the very virus that has everyone panicking. I need to get food. I am so concerned with basic survival needs that my logic is not reachable at the moment. We are going to be locked up, we are not going to be allowed to leave our house. I need to figure out how to make the conditions of ‘house arrest’ bearable.
As the weeks pass, I realize what a lock-down actually means, at least here in Vaughn.
Now, I am wondering what I need to do with all the cans and boxes of food that I may not use as I am making another trip to the store in the next few weeks. At this point I have realized that maybe we didn’t need to stock up on foods and essentials. It seems like we are allowed to go to stores and to buy food, but we are not allowed to be social.
I know many people have lost their jobs. I know many are having to endure difficult home conditions like mental, emotional, and/or physical abuse. I hear peoples’ stories as a therapist and as any frontline worker, I see it as my duty to carry my clients through this mentally and emotionally as I always do.
But what is this nagging faint sense of anxiety? I feel it in my chest as tightness and at times like fluttering.
What is happening to my sleep? Suddenly I am having trouble staying asleep.
Then it hits me. Of course I would feel this way now, in the midst of a pandemic, because this feels familiar. I have been here before. No, I didn’t live a hundred years ago through the last pandemic. What I mean is that my body has experienced a kind of trauma in which I have been aware that I have no control over my fate. I don’t have a sense of agency or autonomy over my own life. Yes, this is the part that feels familiar.
I have my routine self regulating practices.
Grounding is a daily habit I have kept for many years. Because this is what I do, afterall, I am the therapist, right? But somehow I feel disconnected. I feel trapped. The pandemic is reawakening past trauma. I become aware of my therapist self and I remind myself that this is how the brain categorizes emotionally based information. Trauma may be awakened when we experience feelings that remind us of another time in our lives. For me now, it’s the sense of being out of control.
I look around, I am fine, I am healthy, my family is healthy, I am fortunate to be employed, nothing has changed that will impact my immediate survival.
Unfortunately that is not the case for many. I am fully aware of that, especially doing the work that I do. Yet, the feeling of panic is there. One of the hallmarks of a traumatic experience is that what you are going through is not on your terms. You have no choice but to go through with it. We may think that it is not a big deal to just sit on your couch and not go out, but it is actually something that you didn’t choose. The rules as much as they make sense are not something that our nervous system can comprehend.
Then I chuckle, in a sad ironic way. I think of my children. They are the same age as I was when my parents were dealing with political unrest and war where I was born. Although my family left and immigrated to Canada, the impact of trauma was always present in our lives. I wonder if this is going to be the trauma of my children’s childhood? Their story is being written now, just like my story was being written almost 40 years ago.
I have spent the past 15 years of my life deliberately studying and working through my trauma and helping others overcome their trauma as a psychotherapist. My parents were able to escape political unrest, but there is no escaping this global phenomenon. How can I help people escape this trauma?
Fortunately, I remember the impact of trauma is not so much what happens but how it is handled.
Yes my family suffered from intergenerational trauma but not necessarily because of the unfortunate events that occurred but because of a lack of proper healing from the impacts of the trauma. My whole family’s trauma went unaddressed and undiagnosed for a long time. We lived in a state of shut down.
In different parts of the world throughout history, people have experienced war, epidemics, pandemics, political unrest, and much more. What we have come to know is that generations after generations will survive these adversities.
As a Psychotherapist, my claim is that we are better at recovering financially and physically rather than mentally and emotionally.
You may have heard of the term intergenerational trauma. Generations of people have survived unthinkable experiences yet are completely unaware of the mental health impact of such trauma. We get too busy with our most basic and tangible survival priorities, which put mental health on the back burner. This is how we become obsessed with numbing emotions through prescribed and non-prescribed substances. I am not against appropriate use of medication when necessary. However, there is absolutely an overuse as we have lost our ability to regulate and process emotion organically.
As we go into the second wave of this pandemic, we need to remember that our mental health is going to be our biggest resource to get us through.
When brain processing is challenged or stuck we do need to intervene to get that going again or to prevent it from getting stuck in the first place. It is doable but we need to make it a priority. Healing will depend on how you process trauma. It will mean learning the cues that your body sends you.
Stephen Porges, one of the leading neuroscience researchers and the founder of the PolyVagal Theory calls this neuroception. Neuroception is a mechanism in our nervous system that detects safety in our environment. What will be safe for me will not be safe for others and vice versa. This is dependent on many factors such as my experiences, the way my brain has processed my past experiences, how I have processed trauma, what kind of healing work I have done and so much more.
For example, when I recognized that my body was giving me different signals at the beginning of the pandemic, I quickly realized that my nervous system was trying to get my attention. As a result I quickly engaged in deeper trauma work and nervous system regulation work to address the issue.
This pandemic is truly testing our mental and emotional capacities as human beings.
Social isolation is often traumatic for people. Human beings need social interactions to survive. Mechanisms for survival such as heartbeat, breathing, facial expressions, and voice recognition are governed by what is called the Social Engagement System.
If this system is threatened we can go into shut down and numbness. We need to work with our nervous system to cultivate safety on the inside if it feels unsafe on the outside.
Many of my clients came to see me just when the lock down measures were being lifted. Meaning that they had not registered that their nervous system had gone into shut down. As they were starting to reintegrate in the world they were realizing that they were no longer the same. In order for our nervous system to begin to get unstuck, we need to connect.
Are you experiencing these feelings?
I would encourage you to reach out to a professional. A qualified and experienced therapist can be one of the best connecting points to help you mobilize and towards emotional and mental health and safety.
Sabrina Golchin is a mother, wife, entrepreneur, writer, university instructor, public speaker, workshop presenter, therapist, and parent coach who lives, works, and plays in Woodbridge, Ontario. She holds a Masters in Counselling Psychology. Along with Mariella Pace and Johanna Gabel, she is the proud co-owner of Life in Harmony Counselling at Vaughan Counselling Center which provides counselling services to Children, Families, Parents, and Individuals.