Emotional Survival: Finding Your Calm in a Climate of Fear

By Laurie Nadel, Ph.D., author of
The Five Gifts: Discovering Hope, Healing
and Strength When Disaster Strikes

Source: http://www.laurienadel.com

April is Stress Awareness Month.

We're not talking regular everyday stress: getting to work on time, taking care of your family and friends, paying bills and taxes, and meeting deadlines.

Since life turned dark in a heartbeat, everyday stress is now in our rear view mirror, making April COVID-19 Stress Awareness month because we are now going through acute stress.

Acute stress is a very different animal.

Suddenly, we find ourselves living a nightmare: Contagion meets Twilight Zone. The familiar patterns, habits, and routines that guided us through life have been ripped away. Our map of reality feels like London after the Blitz. Unlike the Germans' bombing during World War Two, we hear no warning sirens nor are there any truly safe places to seek shelter.

We are stumbling through the darkness together, fearful of what lurks around the corner.

Fear, too, is contagious. Like any sudden act of mass violence, we are flooded with horror, helplessness, and acute stress.

Trauma is Not a Bad Hair Day

We tend to say "trauma" whenever we mean "upsetting."

But trauma is not a bad hair day.

Trauma means you have been exposed to sudden, unexpected death. Directly or indirectly, trauma imprints the soul with awareness that life itself is uncertain, fragile, and beyond human understanding.

And yes, you can be traumatized by the terror you see online and on TV. V.T. -- vicarious traumatization -- is real and leads to acute stress reactions.

You are a normal person having normal reactions to an abnormal situation

Even first responders and emergency medical personnel who go mano-a-man with life and death on the job suffer from acute stress. It doesn't mean they are not professional. It means they are human.

The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICIS) provides peer support for first responders after disturbing calls where they were unable to save lives. As a member of a critical incident debriefing team at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the school shooting in which 34 people were shot, I was privileged to work with leaders in the field who provided information about acute stress and how to cope with the unthinkable.. "You may never understand why this happened," said Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, a former paramedic and founder of ICISF, "but in time you can come to terms with it."

The first step in coming to terms with a mass fatality event like the pandemic is to accept that your reactions are unique to you and that you are a normal person having normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

COVID-19 Stress

Here are some of the main signs of acute stress:

  • Shock
  • Feeling flooded with horror and helplessness whenever you think about the pandemic.
  • Fear
  • Sense of dread
  • Feeling unsafe in your own skin
  • Hypervigilance: expecting another shoe to drop

The good news is that acute stress usually resolves on its own.

We wake up and start our day without feeling dread about what happened. Our normal appetites and sleeping patterns resume. (Acute stress that resurfaces or continues months or years after the event itself becomes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/PTSD at which time it is important to seek professional help.)

COVID-19 STRESS: 5 Things You Need to Know

1. Find YOUR calm. Fear is a comorbid infection that damages our immune system and can overload our health services by unnecessary 911 calls. Finding your calm is essential for surviving in a climate of fear. Set aside five minutes a day to go to your place of inner safety. This is a private place within where only you can go. Close your eyes and ask your mind to take you back to a place and time when you remember feeling relaxed and safe Make a fist and as you tighten your fist, allow those warm, good feelings of calm and safety to build until they reach a peak and fade away like a chord of music. Open your eyes and release your fist. To get back to your place of inner safety, make that fist and say, "Take me back." (Your fist becomes a bioswitch that activates molecules of emotional memories that are the best antidote to COVID-19 stress.)

2. Eat regular meals. Choose healthy food and do not eat alone Avoid sugar, junk food, alcohol and caffeine. Never eat at your desk. Have a virtual dinner party or 'meet' a colleague for lunch. If you have to eat by yourself, turn away from your screens and look out the window. Remember: choosing your food will help you regain some sense of control.

3. Meet your three elephants. As the pandemic continues our fears can escalate. Embedded in our unconscious, they often show up as three elephants: loss of control, loss of safety, and loss of identity. In facing the first elephant, it's important to become mindful of patterns, habits and routines that we can control. Calming the second elephant means finding patterns, habits and rituals that help us feel safer. It can be a chair or couch, a garden, or a route where you take daily walks. Spend time in your place of inner safety. This will reinforce your sense of self. Write or say this affirmation: Despite the chaos and destruction around me, I can find calm and safety within myself.

4. Start a happiness jar. Take an actual jar, glass, or bowl and label it "HAPPINESS." Keep it someplace where you will see it throughout the day. Place scrap paper and pens or markers next to the jar. Write down one thing that makes you happy per piece of paper. Put the "happy papers" into the jar. Wait at least a month before you empty the jar and read your "happy papers" aloud.

5. Hold on to hope. We are living through a painful, turbulent cycle. But all cycles in nature come to an end and new life begins. This, too, is a law of nature.

"Even the withered branch grows again
And the sunken moon returns.
Wise ones who ponder this
Are not troubled in adversity."Hindu proverb

Laurie Nadel, Ph.D. is the author of The Five Gifts: Discovering Hope, Healing and Strength When Disaster Strikes. Follow Dr. Laurie at www.laurienadel.com


5 GiftsDr. Laurie Nadel, author of The Five Gifts, will be joining HCI Book Club on Thursday, 4/16 to discuss her book and answer questions from readers. The meeting will run from 7 - 7:30 pm EST. Join the Zoom Meeting at https://zoom.us/j/710117077. Meeting ID: 710 117 077. To join the book club, please email Camilla.michael@hcibooks.com and request an invitation.





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