By: Will Bledsoe, Ph.D. (2021)
While the fight over the pandemic, vaccines, and mandates rages on (and I use both terms deliberately), there is one nonnegotiable issue that needs to be addressed – regardless of which 'side of the mask' we're on.
That issue is the diminishing mental and emotional health that people are experiencing right now as a result of the pandemic.
The mental and emotional traumatic stress the pandemic has caused for many is real. And now, with the looming threat of the latest variant emerging (Omicron), the existential fears are being compounded.
The impact of this stress on our brains, minds, nervous systems and bodies is not going to just go away even after the pandemic has been brought under control. Because that’s the way trauma works – it doesn’t just ‘go away’ when the reason for the trauma is removed. Trauma-based fear and anxiety inscribes itself in our memory. It is insidious.
Trauma is by definition an overwhelming experience – it overwhelms our ability to cope. It too is like a virus. If the emotional and psychological trauma of the pandemic is not addressed, it is guaranteed to continually negatively impact other areas of our life like learning, our relationships, our physical, emotional and mental health, and our outlook on life – our spirit.
With all the 'other' threatening issues happening in our world right now, I regularly hear from clients that they believe the world has become a more dangerous place to live.
So what can we do to not only address the trauma of the pandemic now…but put measures in place to consistently engage with the emotional and mental whiplash the virus and other current events carry with them?
At the very least - we need to talk about it, but we need to talk about it in a very specific way that begins the healing process.
We need to talk with each other about our experience in a way that helps us to realize that we’re in this together. If we don’t come together, the trauma will not be resolved and we’ll pay for it later with our children’s and teacher’s lives. I’m not being alarmist. That’s what trauma does if it’s not addressed. It has life-long consequences.
We need to have trauma-responsive conversations; conversations that identify trauma, understand it for what it is, and work with it both “in-the-moment” when it’s happening right in front of us – when a person is feeling overwhelmed or shut down, and “over time” to ensure that our responses to conflict, misconduct, and anti-social behavior are trauma-informed.
What is that conversation? How do you have that conversation? How do you listen and what do you say? How do you have that conversation regularly? How do you institutionalize trauma-responsive communication into our schools, classrooms, faculty meetings, families, workplaces, churches and really – anywhere in a community?
Because it is these very specific types of conversations that will grow our resilience and help us continually heal.
We don't have to be a therapist or behavioral specialist to have a conversation that embodies empathy, compassion, connection and partnership.
And right now? We desperately need them. We need restorative conversations. We need conversations that heal – not continue to blame, harm, and verbally assault.
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single-most important aspect of mental health” Bessel van Der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps the Score (2014:79)