Gentle Steps to Recovery

As flattening the curve is happening across parts of the world and particularly in Australia and New Zealand, there are signs that the mandated restrictions on personal and social freedoms are gradually being lifted. Schools are gradually opening and many businesses reopening, however, it could be quite some time before larger gathering sites like bars and restaurants, cinemas, sporting events and conferences will be possible.

Either way, it seems there really is a light at the end of this horrible tunnel. Every human manages and copes with adversity and trauma in different ways. The coronavirus and its impact socially, economically, emotionally and mentally is a traumatic event — a long, continuous traumatic event.

This pandemic has involved so much loss — not just loss of life, but of jobs, routines, security and significant experiences like weddings, funerals and graduations. It is very much like processing the loss of a significant loved one.

As every day brought a new unwelcome change or a new awful statistic, our sense of freedom and autonomy has been deeply challenged.

No wonder our amygdala, our brain’s early warning system, has been working overtime because there has been a genuine threat to our survival. For parents it’s been particularly challenging to stay calm and to hold the safe, big grown-up energy that our children require.

To the families who suddenly had their financial security ripped out from beneath their feet, your stress levels will be much higher than those who have not had this experience. Given the uncertainty of when this will finish, the ability for humans to solve the problem, to find new work and to restore a sense of financial security, it will feel even worse because no one knows when things will improve.

The long-term prospects of a significant depression around the world and here at home are very real. When we combine these worries with the very real worry that COVID-19 will continue to be a threat in our communities until a vaccination is developed, we need to accept that there is not going to be a quick recovery back to what we once considered was normal.

Given that this is a global pandemic, we are all experiencing a form of collective trauma – not just an individual trauma within our family.

There are so many things that can make it harder to recover from a collective trauma, not only because it is difficult to fight and overcome, it is difficult to identify it in the first place.

Recovery from collective trauma

When we face an adversary that can be fought — such as a bushfire or a flood — the collective power of humanity drives the human psyche in a positive direction. Remember with the Australian bushfires over our last summer, we had firefighters fighting for days on end with no sleep. We also had teams of volunteers rallying to cook food and provide support. The human psyche can create an enormous capacity of persistence and commitment when there is an obvious enemy that they can fight.

Of course, the recovery from natural disaster can also be long — and as it is, many communities in Australia are struggling now with the impact of COVID-19 on top of their efforts to rebuild and recover… they are carrying their earlier trauma during this collective trauma.

Fortunately, there have also been many wonderful stories of the collective goodness of humanity — from bears in windows, neighbourhood gestures of support, singing in the streets, free online concerts and even chalk drawings of hope from children. This is a different way of fighting the virus and it can definitely give some relief to our weary nervous system.

One of the reasons this is taking such a toll emotionally and mentally on so many of us, is that the restrictions put in place have stolen so many of our coping strategies for wellbeing.

Being able to meet friends for a coffee or to go for a jog, for a bike ride or even a regular swim has been made difficult with our social distancing guidelines. I have really struggled not to be able to have my afternoon swim every afternoon in our local ocean pool.

Other things that can lift our sense of wellbeing are spending time with our loved ones, especially our closest family. My heart is aching to be able to hold and hug my own grandchildren and family once the restrictions are lifted. These are examples of protective factors that help to nurture us when we are experiencing stressors. If there was ever a time we needed them it is now, and hopefully soon we will be able to restore them to their rightful place in our lives.

Given that Australia is a sport-mad country, many people use attending sporting fixtures, participating in sporting competitions or watching sport on TV as a way to create positive neurochemicals to feel good. In a way it can also be a form of protective factor. All of this activity has been shut down and it will still take quite some time before we can have crowds at those events.

The arts are an enormous part of our wellbeing, whether it be concerts, music festivals, a band at the local club or going to a comedy event — they all help lift our spirit. Often just having an event planned, even months ahead of time, can help direct our mind away from the negative bias that is created by the threat of the pandemic. We all need something to look forward to. I was particularly saddened when the Disney on Ice performance was cancelled as it was to be a special date with two of my granddaughters as part of their birthday gifts.

Feeling on edge or restless or a little anxious are all signs that our amygdala is working well. We are not safe until we are safe, so it will keep nudging us to keep an eye out, to be cautious to do everything we can to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

It can be physically exhausting to exist in this heightened state. Sometimes it will feel like we’re going crazy because it seems to be never-ending. We are not going crazy however, we are learning how to cope with the new uncertain reality the best we can.

Dr Ann S Masten, who is an internationally recognised expert on resilience in human development, has done research around mass trauma and extreme adversities. In her book Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development she explores research around traumatic events, especially on children. One study was around the Ash Wednesday fires in Australia in 1983. Researchers studied 800 children attending primary schools in the fire exposed region, compared to 725 children from neighbouring regions who had not been impacted directly by the fire.

The fire-exposed children had many more symptoms of trauma at the time of the initial direct exposure, obviously. In the follow-up studies there were some differences between the two groups however they were few and small in magnitude. However, one of the most significant results of the study was the finding that separation from mothers and significant caregivers was a far more important predictor of children’s wellbeing being impacted than the traumatic event itself.

Time and time again in her studies Masten found that resilience is normative, despite the trauma at the time of the event. She also discovered in her research that the potential for long-term significant challenges in children following trauma can be exacerbated by the constant viewing of news around negative events — this will be even more so for children now that we have a 24/7 news cycle and so much coverage on the Internet.

It is great when research lines up with common sense by showing that having parents who are capable of being a safe base for their children while protecting them from the endless reporting of the pandemic are creating significant protective factors for children at this time.

Communities recover together

In the aftermath of disasters or significant traumatic experiences like this pandemic, family is really important and so too is the role of communities in the journey to full recovery. The research shows pretty clearly that how children fare following such events is definitely influenced by the restoring of community functions and structures for the families and communities that they live within.

This restoration process is incredibly important as it brings back a sense of normalcy and indeed with it a sense of increased hope. Hopefully with the stronger communities and neighbourhoods that have been created, this recovery will be helpful and effective for all members of the community including our most vulnerable.

Our previous sense of normal may never be fully restored. However, we will find a new healthy sense of normal. Living on the hope that everything will return to the way it was before may be unhelpful in terms of your recovery and the recovery of your children.

Some things to be aware of in the months and possibly the years ahead following this pandemic are the following.

  • ‘Situational distress’ is normal. It takes many months for our minds and bodies to return to a sense of safety, even if the threat has been completely removed. This is partly due to neuroplasticity where our brain makes new neural pathways in response to experience, especially when the adversity is over such a long timeframe. Neurobiology explores the concept of the ‘fear circuit’ and so it can be helpful not to have the expectation that we will bounce back to being joyful, happy people quickly.
  • Survivor guilt can rear its head during times of recovery as well. You may have been someone who was on one of the cruise ships that had significant infection and possibly known of people who died. Be mindful this is a normal experience if you start to feel guilty that you were one of the lucky ones.
  • Recovering is never a single linear experience. Most people recovering from the death of a loved one, even a year or two later, can find they have some good days and some really bad days. This can also happen in the recovery phase of the pandemic.
  • Copers can crumble. Interestingly some people who have really struggled during the pandemic may recover faster than those who seemed to cope really well. Indeed, some of our strongest, apparently most resilient adults may finally crumble once they realise that the threat is definitely disappearing.
  • Significant gender differences can be seen in how we manage grief and trauma. I have worked closely with men following a nasty bushfire and many of them expressed a sense of loss to know how to support their wives who wanted to keep talking about how they felt. Many men process big ugly feelings over time. There are some studies that show that doing a debrief after a traumatic event can actually make some people worse rather than better. Everyone will process this in their own unique way and it is only when there are red flags that we may need to really encourage someone to seek help.
  • Relationships matter. One thing that has been shown to help many people in recovery is to prioritise their close relationships, their immediate family and closest friends. Exhaustion is very common following trauma as the emotional toll drains the body as well. Saving your energy for those you love most until you feel you have more energy is a sensible choice.
  • When to worry. If at any time you have a cluster of unhelpful behaviours or moods that seem to be taking you away from healing, please seek help immediately. There are helplines and support online if you prefer to remain anonymous, however, a great place to start is with your family doctor. Situational distress can slip into depression on this journey.
  • Always keep in mind ‘this too shall pass’. Humans are wired to survive and they have survived hideous experiences with natural disasters, world wars, tsunamis, earthquakes, bushfires and floods. They have also survived many pandemics and plagues in the past.

Hopefully living in isolation with your family over the past weeks or months has brought you closer to your special people. Maybe you have built some really fun pandemic memories that you can look back on. If you haven’t, maybe you could start today. There is nothing quite like a special day when you stay in your pyjamas all day and maybe even have a movie marathon with pancakes or popcorn, or maybe both.

I would like to end this blog with the words of Brené Brown:

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Please be gentle with yourself, your kids, your partner, your teachers and everyone in your community. This is still a bumpy, unknown ride and some days are gonna be hard.

#weareallinthistogether — we are just each doing it differently.