So. We’re all living through a collective trauma together. You, your friends and family, the grocery store clerk, random strangers around the globe, and your therapist. That may be obvious at this point, but what may not be so obvious is how and why it’s affecting you in the ways it is. Any of the following experiences sound familiar?
- Forgetful, distracted, difficulty focusing. One of the biggest features of this pandemic is the complete upheaval of daily routines. Our brains work by looking for patterns, learning what to expect is coming next. We go on auto-pilot for chunks of our day, because we’re so used to the drive to work or the walk to the park that we don’t use much conscious brain power on those tasks and that energy is freed up to think through other stuff. That’s why you (used to) arrive at work and not remember anything about your commute. Now, though, life is turned upside down and your usual patterns and routines are out the window. Your brain doesn’t know what to expect next. As a result, you’re using a lot of conscious brain power to do the basics of living. This is why you are so exhausted when all you have done is shower, take a 15 minute walk, and attend a work meeting on Zoom. You are expending a lot of energy remembering to put on a mask, scan the sidewalk for people getting too close to you, disinfecting your groceries, etc. No wonder your brain is tired that you can’t remember what you walked into the kitchen to do.
- Irritable and snappy. We are living with a lot of uncertainty right now. What will happen in a day, a week, a year? How many people will get sick or die, are we going to enter a global economic depression, what will be the political aftermath of this crisis? How will I survive it all? Our minds like to feel a sense of control and predictability, and that is in short supply right now. That can lead to a lot of impatience with other people, a fear about scarcity, and a tendency to see others as a threat instead of supports. If you are feeling angry, on guard, and assuming the worst in others right now, it could be your own difficulty with uncertainty.
- Worried or anxious all the time. If you or someone you love are in a high-risk group, you may be experiencing a lot of worry about getting COVID-19, hyper-vigilance for any kind of tickle in your throat or raised temperature. Constant sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) activation is exhausting, and creates a feedback loop that can keep you stuck there and unable to appreciate and take in the moments of calm that you do have.
- Tired but can’t sleep. Your routines and rhythms are off with working from home or no work. You’re not getting enough sunlight. You’re not getting enough exercise. You’re drinking too much. You’re eating at weird times. All these things can throw off your sleep schedule. You might be yawning all through the evening but then when you try to go to sleep you’re wide awake, worrying.
- Sad AF, or pretending you’re not. If someone you know is sick or if you have lost someone, you have first-hand experience how exhausting grief can be, whether you are feeling it or using all your energy to shove it under a rug.
If you’re feeling any of this, you are not alone. And I could give you a dozen tips for improving your sleep or focus, decreasing your anxiety or fear. But the truth is, this is a difficult time. We are living through a collective trauma together. Improving your sleep hygiene or practicing mindfulness will likely improve some of your trauma-related symptoms, and that’s worthwhile. And also, you’re still gonna feel it, cause we’re still going through the trauma. It’s good to tend to your mental health; in fact, it’s necessary, so you can stay as functional as possible to get through this. But have realistic expectations, and don’t get lost in self-criticism if you just can’t get your sleep or anxiety under control right now. We’re not through it yet, we are still in it.