This week I decided to take a course through the Psychologist Association of Alberta called Traumatology and Psychology that follows the Pandemic. There seem to be so many people who are still struggling since the lockdowns have been lifted and this therefore felt like a timely thing for me to do.
The pandemic was declared as an unprecedented public health crisis that affected people in different ways. Some handled it fairly well while others experienced hypochondria, sleep problems, panic, anxiety, depression or suicide ideation. Because family members were home together for long periods of time, many relationships suffered conflicts or breakups. Most people experienced feelings of loss, grief and trauma.
I remember telling clients that the psychological enemies we were facing included fear, miscommunication and loss of control. My work primarily involved helping to normalize the situation through psychoeducation. Reminding clients to focus on the present and thinking about what they could control rather than on what MIGHT happen increased stabilization.
Those who were obsessed with messages of doom did not do as well as those who had positive support, creativity and good self-care practices.
To explain in a simple fashion, trauma causes problems through the executive functioning that occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the part that does planning, monitoring and evaluating of experiences but, when emotions are high, the prefrontal cortex goes “offline”. A fragmented experience occurs when any processing is halted in sensory, thoughts/beliefs, emotions or body sensations. The result of this is that the person doesn’t have a cohesive storyline to process. Information is sent from the brain to the body for survival purposes, but the body doesn’t know how to react in a “normal” manner
Hyperarousal involves symptoms such as mind racing, feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and anger. Hypoarousal, on the other hand, slows the mind, gives feelings of lethargy and interferes with the ability to be connected with other people.
In summary, trauma is a physical injury to the brain due to an overwhelming change that threatens organisms when the person has not been prepared adequately to handle this change
When people are under pressure or stress, they usually default to either fight, flight or freeze responses but when the unexpected and unprepared for event(s) occurs the brain can get “stuck”. Even just observing or listening to negative messages can cause neurons to fire and cause problems. These situations interfere with the ability to think clearly, function well and maintain relationships.
Research by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk states that therapy is more effective than medications for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as it is important to resolve trauma by reconnecting body and brain until the trauma is resolved. Unfortunately, the brain stores trauma as a current event even if it occurred days, months or years previously so a person who has experienced trauma lives as though the trauma is happening at that moment. It is therefore important to acknowledge that it just won’t go away on its own.
Treatment for trauma begins with basic self-care. Walking, eating sensibly, finding ways to ground oneself, knowing and respecting limits, doing social activities, resting, watching for change, and talking to “safe” individuals all help the process. It is important to learn to regulate and increase coping skills, deal with stress and develop healthy routines. Think about things that helped with coping in the past. These can be accessed again but new strategies can also be adopted. Some people find visualization, progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises to be helpful.
Focusing on the present, setting small, achievable goals and being good to yourself is always a good foundation for physical and mental health but even moreso when trauma has been experienced.
This week make a commitment to increase your self-care practices. Time to pay attention to the lyrics of the Mac Davis well-known song “You got to stop and smell the roses. Count your blessings every day.”