Confronting our fears in the time of pandemic
By Karla Freeman
Chicken little: Is the sky falling?
Chicken Little stood outside her house and said,
“The sky is falling. Oh, my God, the sky is falling.“
Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks fell on her from the sky.
She looked up saw dark clouds above and more coming in the distance.
Chicken Little said aloud, to no one in particular,
“What is happening? Why are these things falling on me?”
Her friend Skinny Love came by, looked up and said,
“Well, this is interesting. But I see the sun in the distance.”
Chicken Little stomped her spindly legs and squeaked out of her little throat: “This could be even worse than the sky falling. What if there is a blizzard and it covers me and swallows me up?”
Skinny Love started to laugh; “You are such a baby, look at the sun in the distance behind the clouds.
Make sure you have sunscreen on.”
Skinny Love just smiled and hummed.
“Ok,” said Chicken Little, picking up the stuff that had fallen from the sky, “We can use these things.”
Skinny Love went on, “Get up and let’s get to work. Put on work clothes, and clean from top to bottom and get ready for your friends to visit.
Let’s go out to your backyard garden now and pick some vegetables.
We can cook a giant stew with carrots squash, greens, oregano and garlic and onions from the garden. And don’t forget the tomatoes. “
While the stew was cooking, they started to sing: “Chop, chop, chop, veggies in the pot.” The smell of onions and garlic frying filled the house.
“Bide your time until the sun is in middle of the sky. But don’t wait; be busy with dancing and laughing. You know there is a laughing meditation,” Skinny Love said.
They opened the door and both started singing to their neighbors at the top of their lungs, a song about a stew and onions and chopping. They called out to invite all to partake of the stew in containers for all to pick up at their door.
“Come and get it!” they both sang.
* * *
As we face the reality of life in the time of a pandemic, it is all too normal to have fear and anxiety and like Chicken Little, we feel awful, only seeing the sky falling. But there is hope and help. The following is meant to help with recurring feelings of threat in response the pandemic.
The current pandemic has created a world crisis we are all challenged to face. We are all in it together. Daily we are faced with news on the state of the things like when the curve might be flattened, numbers of new cases, deaths, more restrictive ways of life, not enough ventilators, and fear of no toilet paper.
Each day’s news can create a new sense of fear or hope or uncertainty. Is the new normal? Looks that way.
As with any new reality, it sinks in bit by bit. Another day at home, another day of not knowing how long we will have these limitations and our fears of us or someone we love getting sick.
One day after another we are faced with how to live with social distancing. A way of life we were used to with family, friends, finances, and health, and the issue of how to spend time at home has changed in a heartbeat.
We, in the general public, were ill prepared for such sudden big changes. Now the world has gotten smaller, as we all are in it together; no matter which country we live in, what social class we are part of, or how we live as individuals.
Of course, scientists have known this could happen but who wanted to believe them? Well, now the pandemic is here.
What we know from trauma theory has a lot to offer and can help us stay sane and even transform. It can help us to cope and take charge of our responses. We can use tools from first aid for shock.
What is first aid for shock?
March 4, I was in Mexico preparing to leave in late March to return to Dublin where I would be living, starting an MFA program in creative writing, September 2020.
Suddenly, the pandemic!!! The world changed overnight.
I was in shock, and as a trained trauma therapist, I knew the impact it would have on me and everyone else, for that matter. So, my response to the sudden change started with anxiety as my body tensed, and my breathing got shallower. Then, thoughts flooded my brain: “This can’t be happening. What does this mean? Will I die? Will my friends or family get sick? What should I do? Should I stay in Mexico or leave? Maybe I should leave tomorrow.”
Daily as the news got more dire, more fear and anxiety ensued, but I was able to calm myself enough to make a plan during the next days. I knew my reactions were very normal. The animal protective brain had a job to do and it was helping me wake up to the dangers coming.
As time passed, I chose to track (as much as possible) my body’s responses. I knew that be aware of my physical sensations could help. I knew that was the way to settle down. Instead of tensing against what I felt, I felt the tensions and gradually they released.
I also used a healing tool called resourcing which means to do things that make us feel normal or neutral.
I did some deep breathing, took walks, did yoga, talked with friends, watched old episodes of Friends.
I did what I usually did as if this wasn’t happening in order to restore balance. All that I did worked. It calmed me enough.
After a few days of researching and using calming practices, I knew it was time to make the decision to leave Mexico.
Personally, my lifestyle as a nomad was an asset. I was familiar with adjusting to sudden changes as I had been traveling for 10 years and that actually prepared me to adjust to new situations more quickly.
A bit more about trauma theory: Any shock like a car accident, a fall, any sudden event signals the nervous system of danger and thus ensues our shock protective response of numbing/freeze, anger/fight, and/or speeding up/flight.
What was I to do? Go? Stay? Would I get sick? Who could I help? Should I go out? The streets of Oaxaca suddenly seemed scary and strangers could infect me.
I left Mexico to travel to Dublin where I spend days at home like everyone else, except for going out for a walk, to get groceries or go to the pharmacy.
The threat is real and ongoing. I check the news daily but briefly, and don’t obsess which would feed my fear/anxiety. Thinking too much about the safety to my health, the security of my finances, social challenges of loneliness or even getting sick; could throw me into a constant state of fear. So I don’t do that. I watch Colbert or Friends instead.
I plan my day. I do things like talk to friends, use Zoom for yoga and to meditate with a group.
Being in the present, seeing what is there right in front of me, a chair, or a tree can change our brain and help us relax. Using taste or touch or smell can help, too. Our five senses shifts us from fight, flight or freeze to higher functioning. We are more able to problem solve, have creative ideas coming from a more settled nervous system. We can sleep better, connect better with friends and family and even start laughing.
This shift to healthier ways of being can happen naturally as time passes as we adjust to the here and now changes. We start to come out of the initial blur but this is not an orderly process, as new shocks keep coming with new realities about the pandemic and its role in our lives. With added element of uncertainty about the future comes added challenges. Sometimes it is necessary to add professional support and that can be a very healthy coping mechanism. Getting this support can help us grow learn to face this and grow new muscles to face our deeper fears.
Signs of healing:
What we know about the social nervous system tells us we need others to regulate our healthy functioning. It can be people but also animals or even trees and nature.
We need others to help come into the present in real time. But let’s face it; being with some people can be the problem, too, if they carry a lot of anxiety. Watching a calming show or listening to calming music might work better, at times.
Being aware of that we might experience new shocks helped, too. When another fear response is triggered we can choose to do something to calm down. It is to be expected that we will cycle into and out of freeze, fight and then run around in flight.
Here is a brief overview of how staying in shock looks:
Fight: anger that doesn’t abate and the person can’t calm down focusing only on the pandemic and its effects. “Why is this happening to me? I can’t control any of this;” not accepting reality and can’t see coping mechanisms that might work.
Flight: Sometimes people run around, “Oh. my God, oh, my God.” They can’t stop long enough to think things through.
Freeze: People can be in denial. “This is not happening in my life. I can meditate it away or, it is a hoax. Other people have a problem, not me.”
What happens when we start to adjust?
After a period of time, the nervous system usually calms down as we adjust to the new reality with possible dips back into survival mode as new scary information surfaces.
There can be a gift in facing our new reality. We might get stronger as we find new solutions.
Signs that the shock state has abated:
We become calmer
We are clearer-headed, less emotionally charged
We are more and more in the present
We have hope and can see a future
We feel grounded more of the time
Our fears are more manageable
We can help ourselves and see how to help others cope
We might not like this reality but we admit it is happening, we are not fighting it; we are starting to plan better and to use what we are learning. We don’t panic or resist and use tools that help with the stress.
We are open to learn deeper lessons, we embrace the change and become stronger and even a better person.
By Karla Freeman, MSW, trauma therapist, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. She is available for private sessions: Karlastoryteller@gmail.com