* A Psychologist Reflects

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No one expected the year 2020 to begin like this.

No one expected a microscopic virus to bring such panic and hysteria to our world. Yet here we are.

Living in fear and uncertainty can create feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. The buildup of these feelings can have a traumatic impact. As individuals and as a community, we are experiencing what is called “collective trauma.” This worldwide pandemic is having a destructive psychological impact with potentially massive long-term consequences.

The stress of prolonged isolation, financial worries, relationship conflicts, grief, and confusion all have a devastating effect on the psyche. When we are confronted with such distress, our sympathetic nervous system instantly triggers the “fight or flight” response. Given the mandatory stay-at-home order, most individuals are unable to flee, so they are turning their fear and distress into a fight-or-freeze reaction. As a psychologist, I am witnessing a number of these responses in our world.

Many people are experiencing a fight response that is manifesting as anger, irritability, and frustration. Shortness with family members sharing a small living space; impatience with strangers in the grocery store. Battles on social media regarding “essential services.” Some people are directing their anger to fight back against the limitations imposed upon us by our government, while others are fighting for the maintenance of social isolation to contain this pandemic. 

Unfortunately, some conflicts are more destructive. Incidences of domestic violence and child abuse are increasing, but given our social restrictions, most of these cases are unrecognized and unreported. Victims are trapped at home with their perpetrators and have no escape or hope of intervention. The long-term effects of the interpersonal violence suffered during this season will have a profound impact on many.

Others are fleeing into anything that will numb their fear and distress. Alcohol sales are up. Marijuana sales are up. Online pornography use is up. Overeating is up. We see online memes joke about midday drinking and gaining the “Quarantine 15.” We unite through laughter, yet quickly ignore the potential powder keg depicted in these illustrations. With the stay-at-home mandate and lack of accountability, maladaptive coping strategies are being utilized that could have enduring negative consequences. When this quarantine is over, many will be facing new addictions and a wave of unprocessed emotion.  

For some, chronic distress and uncertainty have crippled them into a state of depression where sadness, fatigue, and hopelessness prevail. Social isolation is causing intense loneliness, which is a powerful risk factor for depression. Loss of interpersonal connections, canceled graduations, postponed weddings, and other revoked activities have led many to experience feelings of grief and loss, which can produce depression if not properly addressed and processed. Most tragically, untreated depression combined with other risk factors such as job loss and social isolation, increases the risk for suicide. Finally, chronic stress without reprieve decreases our immune system’s response and puts us at greater risk of getting sick. If we do not manage our emotional response to this ongoing traumatic experience, we all will suffer greatly.

There is hope, however. While many are struggling with fear, anxiety, and depression, others are choosing to rise above the helplessness and lack of control and find purpose and meaning in this unique situation. The following suggestions can help transform this time of trauma into a time of transformation.

BREATHE. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, taking a deep breath stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system to calm our fear and anxiety. Remember to stop and breathe throughout the day.

CONNECT. During times of stress, we need connection with others to express our feelings and receive support. This helps soothe our hyperactive amygdala. Phone calls, texts, Facetime, etc. are all ways in which to connect virtually when we can’t connect physically.

ROUTINE. Most of our normal routines have been altered or abandoned. Creating some consistency amidst the chaos will give us a feeling of control over our lives. Instill healthy habits. Exercise regularly. Eat regular healthy meals.

BE MINDFUL. Be present. Focus on each moment in each day and live for that moment. Don’t focus on the what-ifs. Be grateful for what we have now.

FIND MEANING. One day this lock-down will end. How do we want to remember the Year of the Quarantine? Create a personal narrative now for how you want to memorialize this time, as this can dramatically change your sense of well-being now and in the future.

 Shannae Anderson, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Thousand Oaks.  She specializes in the treatment of trauma, addiction, and personality disorders.

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