Though we cannot always control what happens, trauma-awareness can help us deal with it in a healthy way
COVID-19 has created a new normal that has ratcheted up the stress level for everyone. Mental health professionals describe the historic changes society is undergoing as a collective trauma.
Mick Thornton is the Trauma and Community Connection Specialist for Project EVERS, a federally funded, five-year program that aims to break the cycle of trauma and violence in the lives of students and families in the 21 school districts served by the Northwest Kansas Educational Service Center, in Oakley. He recently answered some questions about handling stress and trauma.
Can you share some simple techniques a person could use to help the stress feel more manageable?
People are wonderfully designed to process stress. In addition to the built-in stress-management approaches that our minds and bodies automatically use every day, there are simple but effective strategies to better manage stress in our lives, and even experience growth and change. Here are a few to try:
Get moving — While the benefits of hard work are many, one that is often forgotten is that hard work and exercise are great stress-relievers. My friend Ginger teaches self-regulation techniques professionally, and she says it this way:
“One of the ways to relax when under outside stress is to intentionally go for a walk or get some strenuous exercise. Stress is stored in the body in different ways, and working our muscles is one way to let it go. Taking time to exercise can really help us create a pause to our reactions toward stressful situations, which allows our thinking brains to come back to the front of our minds.”
“Check in” — A “check in” is a stress-management activity that a person can do by themselves every day with the help of a journal, or better yet with a trusted friend. It consists of asking and answering three questions. “How are you feeling right now?” “What is that mostly about?” and, “Is there anything more you want to say about that?”
Bonus points if you can narrow your emotions to the categories of mad, sad, glad, and afraid. And extra bonus points if whenever you feel mad you can try to understand how much of your anger relates to being sad and afraid. This activity creates emotional awareness and teaches us to take time to think about what we’re thinking about rather than just feeling bad or saying or doing things that we often later regret.
Breathe and be positive — When you feel yourself becoming stressed, take a deep breath while slowly pressing your index finger against your thumb. Exhale slowly as you press your middle finger against your thumb, then the ring finger, then the pinky. Each time you move your thumb to a new finger, focus on another syllable of the phrase “I-am-O-K.” This combination of intentional breathing, neural focus, and positive affirmation helps to lessen tension. It employs your nervous system for you rather than against you in times of stress.
How can stress management help when it doesn’t change the very real problems people are currently facing?
People are powerful. Even in the face of unchangeable grief and hardship we have tremendous power.
I once believed that people were essentially at the mercy of their circumstances. And then I started actually working with people. Time and again I witnessed the same pattern: Two people would experience the same often horrific situation, and yet, those two people would have completely different responses. For one person, their grief would harden around them into a prison that would rob the next decade or more of their life of any sense of joy or color. But for the next person, the exact same grief would be addressed differently, felt completely, yet somehow incorporated honestly into their life. And their life would continue in fullness.
We as people have much more power over ourselves than our circumstances have over us. When I learned that, I began to more truly understand the link between personal responsibility and freedom. In short, the more responsibility I take for my life, the more I am truly free. This is where things like stress-management techniques become important. These things don’t change the world. They change us. And as we are changed, we might change the world as well.
Can you explain a bit about what research has shown about how the brain functions differently during times of trauma or stress?
In a nutshell, stress causes two very different responses in the brain, depending on the amount of stress that is present. If a person who is in a generally healthy emotional and physical condition experiences mild to moderate stress, that person’s brain tends to light up in the best of ways. They become energized, creative, even excited as blood flows into their brain and they face and work through the experience.
If a person is not in a healthy place, or if the stress is severe, the exact opposite happens. Much of that person’s brain will actually go dark, and the person will go into a literal survival mode. They stop experiencing strong positive emotions, stop being able to speak clearly or even think clearly about most things, and find themselves zombie-walking their way through life. Their mind and body sink into what is typically called “fight or flight” mode, and it becomes extremely difficult to do anything but fight, freeze, or escape.
It is important to recognize that stress adds up. Personally, I like to think that I keep my life in separate compartments. My work life is at work. My home life is at home. My past is in the past. That kind of thing. But that’s not how life really works. And that is especially not how stress works. The stresses of home and work and past and present and friendship and finances and every other thing all blend together. A person can become severely stressed even if they can’t point their finger at one exact problem, person or situation that is causing a high degree of stress. And if a person who is already carrying a lot of stress wakes up one day in a world where COVID-19 is changing all the rules, then that can be a recipe for serious difficulty.
What does that mean for a person’s ability to critically think things through and make good decisions?
When a person is under severe stress, critical thinking becomes very nearly impossible. Previously easy decisions become hard ones. And life begins to feel colorless and flat. It is not the end of the world. But it can feel that way.
This is precisely why taking a new kind of responsibility for ourselves is so important. We call this trauma awareness. Becoming trauma-aware starts when we accept the simple truth that the events of life have shaped that person’s life. When our lives have been blessed with good things, those blessings have benefited us. When our lives have seen difficulty and darkness, those events or trauma can negatively shape us. Most people carry different kinds of trauma from the past that are affecting their lives in the present. Sometimes those effects show up only in certain small areas. Sometimes those effects show up in our lives every single day. They are the reason we do things that we wish we wouldn’t do, and why we can’t do the things that seem so easy for everybody else.
I’ll give you an example from my life. I don’t like Christmas. I really don’t like Christmas. And that fact has nothing to do with my recent Christmases; it comes from my past. Long ago I had some hard things happen to me around Christmas, and those things still live in me. Therefore, in order for me to take true responsibility for my actions and emotions around Christmas, I have to accept my own trauma, and do so in a way that emphasizes self-compassion and growth.
I want to be a different kind of person than my past trauma points me toward. So I choose the path of trauma awareness. The more I choose that path, the less I live under severe, mind-altering stress, and the more I live as the person that I choose to be. I want that for everybody.
What kinds of mistakes or abuses are people prone to during times of stress or trauma, and what’s the best way to prevent them?
It is a sad fact that in times of severe stress people sometimes make hard times even harder. Broadly speaking, this tends to happen in three ways. Sometimes people act out, sometimes people act in, and sometimes people do both at the same time.
“Acting out” usually involves hurting something or somebody. This might include something as silly and ultimately harmless as throwing a screwdriver across the garage. But it might also include something as destructive as committing an act of verbal or physical abuse.
“Acting In” happens when a person takes their stress and fear and every other bad thing and stuffs it down inside of themselves. On the surface, it seems like a better idea than acting out. But the cost is very, very high. People were not designed to live in misery. Those who bury their stress and unpleasant emotions inside of themselves invariably end up miserable. Very often this misery leads to self-medicating tendencies such as chemical or behavioral addictions. And after all that hard work of protecting the world by becoming miserable most people who “act in” eventually “act out” anyway.
This is why becoming trauma-aware is such an important part of a healthy life. We are responsible for the way we treat others and the way that we treat ourselves 100 percent of the time. Since we have total control of our circumstances exactly zero percent of the time, we should be extremely intentional in the way that we manage and care for ourselves.
How should I be feeling?
This is an extremely important question. The extremely important answer is that you should be feeling however you actually feel. You might feel angry, scared, confused, happy, sad, bored, numb, or any combination of a hundred different things. That is completely OK. The only thing you should not be feeling right now is guilt about how you are feeling!
It is a common event for people to be upset with themselves because they think they are feeling the wrong thing. Most people experience that from time to time, and never in the history of the world has that guilt been productive. Feel whatever you feel. Seek to understand why you feel that way. And show grace to yourself as you work to figure yourself out. The “check-in” exercise is a great tool for starting down this road.
Are children affected differently than adults?
Very much so. Children are incredibly vulnerable. Rather than having a stable view of life from which they process the events of their lives, they are in the process of developing their view of life. Trauma in their lives now can have negative consequences that last for decades. But also, the presence of safe and secure adult relationships can not only protect them from trauma now, but also provide them with a degree of confidence and assurance that will last throughout their lives.
Clinical research is finally catching up with something most grandparents already know: a secure and loving adult relationship makes all the difference in the life of a child. More so even than health, financial status, or any other indicator, a secure and loving adult relationship changes everything.
How can we best support friends and neighbors going through especially difficult circumstances?
Connect with them. Social distancing may be the closest thing we have to a cure for COVID-19, but it comes at a significant cost. People are designed for interaction, and it hurts when we don’t have it. Take a moment every day to make a phone call, drop off a care package on someone’s porch, or find some other way to connect with a friend or neighbor. And don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what to say. In my experience people rarely remember what was said, but they rarely forget that you called.
Want to learn more?
High Plains Mental Health Center has partnered with the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund to provide a great new tool for helping people process through stress right at home. Learn more about that here.
Here is a link to a breakout session from a recent online conference that provides more about how stress affects our brain and nervous system.