As we enter our sixth week of COVID-19 lockdown, fear is all around us. Not least is the concern about contagion and illness caused in humans by this strand of RNA that we have called coronavirus. Then there is the financial stress and concerns about our mental health during the isolation of the crisis.
Are we safe? Even at home?
Usually our homes provide some kind of safe haven in the midst of crisis. But for many even this infallible truth is in doubt. My friend talked about her neighbour who as a young baby and her partner is still working. “I get anxious every time he comes through the door,” she tells my friend. “He’s worried too. He strips off most days when he gets in and has a shower and washes all his clothes.”
When loved ones are the threat
Moreover, with the surge induring the lockdown, the threat might actually come from the one we love. It is said that those who control, and therefore abuse, others have trouble controlling themselves. This makes sense when we think about . Consequently, when some people feel out of control, controlling others helps them feel better. In a similar way, when they feel bad, bullying or abusing others can be an outlet for a kind of relief. Whether this behaviour is intentional or not, it is against the law.
Home as a prison
It goes without saying that many are finding that simply being confined to the four walls of their home feels like a prison sentence. If you don’t have resources to cope with this trauma, the experience can be triggering. Symptoms of undischarged trauma include bad dreams, emotional flashbacks, irritability, feeling on edge, restlessness, out of character behaviour (ie meanness or anger), and feeling detached from life and others. You might notice that you are more easily overwhelmed, that even writing a to-do list seems like too much. Trauma can also leave you feeling like you don’t have a future.
When we are triggered by trauma, we are anywhere but in the present moment. We have forgotten that here and now, right now in this moment, we are safe. If not in our house, but now in our body. In our body we have a haven, a place where we can retreat that is calm and resourceful, but that has been temporarily stolen from us. I think that trauma distorts our sense of time, our sense of agency, and our sense of safety.
Lost sense of safety
It also messes with our sense of self. As symptoms of undischarged trauma are experienced in our body, we flee our body. What I mean by that is that we turn our awareness to our thoughts, or our emotions. We are hypervigilant to what could happen if we leave the house, or stand too close to that person in the queue. We are well attuned to our anxiety and our fear. Many of these experiences are rooted in feelings that arise in our bodies, so we leave our bodies – at least mentally. We live in our heads. However, we are not our complete self without our body. As we turn our awareness away from our internal life of feelings and sensations in the body, we also deny ourselves an extraordinary resource.
Home is where the body is
Just as importantly, we have access to a deep sense of peace and comfort in our bodies. Polyvagal theory teaches about the importance of the newest branch of the vagal nerve in particular for inducing a sense of alert calmness. I refer to this as the vagal brake. If you have a lot of anxiety or are in a trauma response, it is like you only know where the accelerator is and you have forgotten how to use the brake, or even that there is a brake.
By practicing certain techniques you can repair and re-engage your own brake and begin to calm your system down. This will enable you to access that safe and powerful place inside of you. In so doing you will regain your ability to self-regulate and access a resourceful place of agency and choice even when there is chaos around you.
Simple technique to begin to find safety within
Here is a simple practice that will give you a sense of how you can start to change things:
There is particular interest in the muscles of the neck in trauma. The sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM) is the ‘muscle of curiosity’, it enables the neck to move to express the emotion or state of curiosity – stretched forward, listening, alert. So the way people move, or don’t move, their neck says a lot about trauma. In the emotion of curiosity the brain region of the hippocampus is active, which is another key area along with the amygdala involved in processing traumatic events.
- Sit comfortably in a chair and become aware of the chair, of your position. Keep your eyes open
- Begin to look around the room. You need to actually engage your SCM muscle as you do this. So lift your chin up, stretch your head forward a little and rotate your head at your neck.
- Look around the room for something that catches your attention. Something that you are drawn to. Look all the way around and behind you, scanning every corner of the room.
- You might notice something straight away or a short way in but carry on scanning.
- When you have had a good look, come back to the item you were drawn to. Rest your eyes on it, ‘listen’ with all your senses.
- What is it about this object that appeals to you? What do you notice about it. What are its qualities but what in particular catches your attention? And what does this mean to you? What do you want to do as a result?
- How do you feel? Notice anything that is happening in your body. What feelings or sensations arise? Notice any thoughts that come up
- Finish the practice.
For more information on the neuroscience of trauma and techniques that can help, you might find my dissertation ‘Yoga for Trauma - How Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Can Help in the Trauma Recovery Process’ useful