Fists clenched into tight little balls, jaw tightening, extreme fatigue taking over- all of these are symptoms that clients and colleagues alike are experiencing due to the pandemic. The reason for it isn’t because most of us are positive for COVID-19. Instead, most of us are emotionally and psychologically overloaded with stress from this globally traumatic experience.
The body memorizes traumatic experiences. Some of us have been previously diagnosed with chronic diseases. Most of us have experienced other traumatic events in our lives. It doesn’t matter what we started out with; the body can easily relive trauma, whether it’s from a chronic illness, traumatic event that happened in childhood, or repercussions of a pandemic. Living during quarantine and the shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders is a form of trauma, and the body does not take trauma lightly. The news highlighting thousands of people dying, non-essential businesses shutting down, and a plethora of limitations that require us to socially distance ourselves from each other has impacted all our lives in an extreme way. First comes the fight/flight/freeze response, which kicks in the adrenaline and causes us to rush to the grocery store and protect our families. Then, comes the trauma that ensues from the state of the global climate. What we’re now experiencing are symptoms of post-traumatic stress or what experts are calling a “culturally psychologically traumatizing situation.”
Do you feel it? If you do, I get it! I’m right there with you.
The body responds to new situations with skill-sets that were created through past life-threatening experiences. The emotions you experienced during those experiences are recreated and relived in the body. This is your body’s way of protecting you. It is trying to help you survive. Now, more than ever, we have time to become more attuned to our body’s natural rhythms and the way we are responding physically, emotionally, and mentally. In “The Body Keeps the Score” by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, he writes, “Ideally our stress hormone system should provide a lightning-fast response to threat, but then quickly return us to equilibrium. In PTSD patients, however, the stress hormone system fails at this balancing act. Fight/flight/freeze signals continue after the danger is over… the continued secretion of stress hormones is expressed as agitation and panic and, in the long term, wreaks havoc with their health.”
The brain and body are more connected than we know.
It’s estimated that the brain can produce 50% more stress than the physical body can handle, and when this happens, the body lets you know through a series of symptoms, one of which is exhaustion. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is produced when our brains perceive a threat. When this threat is present, cortisol helps desensitize us, so we feel less pain and can get out of a dangerous situation. But when exposed to the threat for a long period of time, excessive cortisol production can be responsible for memory loss, increased fatigue, and reduced serotonin, a “feel-good” neurochemical.
The brain is essentially thinking, “COVID- 19= big bad scary threat.”
In addition to increased cortisol production, other stress hormones are released, which can manifest in exhausted adrenal glands. When dysregulated adrenal glands are responsible for excessive secretions of stress hormones, more symptoms of exhaustion can arise because of this taxing cycle of the threat continuing to stay present.
In this state of threat, we experience a state of hyper-vigilance. Our brains are constantly aware that a threat is present, and resources like alarming news stories, fearful phone calls from friends, and horror stories from neighbors feed our fight/flight/freeze response. This causes the release of more stress hormones and keeps us in a state of hyper-alertness. This can lead to waking up repeatedly throughout the night and a broken sleep pattern that leads to fatigue throughout the day. Since our sleep/wake cycle is disrupted and our brain is telling the rest of the body that a threat is present, we can feel stress that is equivalent to completing a moderate workout all day long.
Being isolated from others can lead way to a rise in norepinephrine. Increased norepinephrine can create feelings of emotional stress and increase inflammation, which can cause old injuries to become more inflamed, so you can experience more pain. A rise in norepinephrine can also lead to thinking about other traumatic situations that have happened in the past, causing you to relieve these memories through an influx of stress hormones in the body.
Often, details of past life experiences get warped with the passage of time. We can’t remember the exact details of the trauma, although most of us believe we know every detail to a tee. Rather, the body can accurately remember the trauma, beyond what we are able to articulate. This is because the nervous system remembers. The neurochemicals related to the experience are released. The emotions remain even if the memory does not. This can cause us to relive traumatic events during the time we are experiencing an acute threat.
Our bodies are going through a lot right now, but each person handles the threat differently.
Experts are saying that most people will feel a decrease in fatigue and other symptoms related to this current threat as they allow the passage of time. It’s predicted two months from now, many people will return to their baseline level of stress. However, it is proven that chronic stress does lead to an opportunistic environment for pathogens to thrive and the immune system to remain malfunctioning. Those who lack coping skills or continue to have symptoms will need resources to overcome the trauma that has ensued in order to regain resilience.
The good thing? Humans are adaptable, malleable, and ever-changing.
Together, we can be proactive about our health and learn how to counteract acute stress and trauma with useful tools.
- Support; don’t vent. Although venting can initially feel like an emotional reprieve, more than one minute of it can lead to rumination and dwelling on the traumatic subject. Briefly vent about the pandemic… then move on. When you’re speaking with a loved one, allow one minute to vent then talk about how you can support each other during this time through reminiscing about past trips or future travel plans.
- Stay updated on news without overdoing it. Now that you know that news can continue to feed your perception of the threat, it’s important to receive information from unbiased news stations in small doses. After 10 minutes of getting updated information, it may be time to turn off the TV rather than continuing to feed the fight/flight/freeze response.
- Allow yourself time to rest. Now that you understand experiencing exhaustion after trauma is common, remind yourself that you can use this valuable time to take care of yourself. Scheduling 20 minutes of downtime during the day can be beneficial to boost your health.
We are all experiencing this trauma in our own way, at different ends of the spectrum. Emotions range from shock to denial.
We can take our health into our own hands. You may have been feeling like there are so many things out of your control, and even if that’s true on a global scale, you can control your internal environment. Of course, it’s important to maintain healthy routines, daily nourishment, and activities that are fun, but it’s equally important to pay attention to what your mind is ingesting. If you’re looking for an opportunity to experience a parasympathetic reset and relieve your brain of the fight/flight/freeze response, now may be a perfect time to address that. For two weeks only, Vital-Side is offering the virtual 5-day course for the discounted price of $249 (from $1599) or optional payment plans. It’s up to you to take your acute stress and stop it before it becomes chronic and debilitating to your health.
We can make positive changes to our health even during times of uncertainty.
And that change starts with you.