If so you’re NOT alone-- welcome to the third wave of pandemic coping.
Something that keeps coming up with my private and group coaching clients lately is the fact that we are all TAPPED. OUT.
There seems to be a sort of third wave of emotional coping with the ongoing trauma that this pandemic has been for many folks. I sure as hell feel it — my nervous system feels totally out of whack, and I feel weird, numb, disconnected, and also more emotionally reactive than usual.
This makes sense in a way. Last spring was all about survival — we didn’t know anything about the virus, and we all kind of stepped into a stage of quarantine red alert together. It was stressful and chaotic, but adrenaline and cortisone powered us through.
Then it shifted.
At some point over the summer the whole thing became politically divisive, and we realized the end was nowhere in sight. The physiological effects of adrenal fatigue hit our bodies, along with half a year of stress and isolation and the unique daily burdens of pandemic life, and it felt like we all got collectively hit with exhaustion, anxiety, and depression in the fall.
But shortly after New Years, I started to notice something new was happening.
2020 had come and gone, and the pandemic was still stretching out endlessly in front of us. Winter was brutal, and the pandemic’s year anniversary was looming. It felt like we all shifted into a third stage of neurological coping; the cumulative mental health effects of the pandemic ripped through everyone in a new way.
Endlessly I saw clients fall apart in new ways. Some who had been dealing with emotional outbursts and meltdowns started to report feeling a numb-y state of shut-down, like their emotions and vibrancy had gone completely dormant. Some reported out-of-character fighting with their partners, irrational angry outbursts, or panic attacks.
This third wave of coping seems to be the most unpredictable. Has weird shit been happening in your brain and body lately too? Have you bounced around from feeling dead and dissociated to panicked, angry, or heartbroken?
Or maybe you’re like a lot of my people, and you’re feeling intense anxiety about the world opening back up and going back to things like seeing your friends, going to concerts or sporting events, or even heading back into the office. Maybe all the things you’ve been wishing and waiting for suddenly feel terrifying and intolerable, and you’re wondering what in the hell is wrong with you.
This pandemic is trauma, ya’ll.
It’s active, ongoing, collective and cumulative complex trauma.
The numb-y dissociated deadness. The feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and stuckness. The nervous system whackery. The outbursts of anger or sadness. The panic and anxiety. The feeling that we might not be able to handle normal daily life when it comes back.
These are trauma responses. We are in the middle of trauma, and it’s no joke.
Last week I had my first panic attack in nine years. NINE YEARS. My nervous system feels like it’s constantly perched on the brink of fight, flight, or freeze. The littlest things seem to set me off into a triggered state, and even as I feel myself swing dramatically out of my body and into survival mode, I’m still able to consciously identify that nothing scary is going on.
This wild ride has nothing to do with what I believe, or what kind of mindset I’m in. This is simply about how neurological and physiological trauma function.
I recently went with my partner to a park in Miami, and we had a socially distanced slacklining hang with two friends. It reminded me of The Before Times — the easy lovely togetherness; the laughter and joy. Challenging each other to handstands. Enjoying the drama of whether or not we would get rained out.
It was all so familiar. So casual. And yet, when I got back in the car I felt my heart start racing, and my chest get tight. I felt a sort of dizzying out-of-body feeling, a woozy sense that nothing around me was safe, or even real, and I felt the panic coming fast.
I started to cry and told my partner I was being hit with a tidal wave of sadness and fear. He asked me “about what?”
“About nothing,” I said, and I meant it. I was sad about the loss of my old, richly fulfilling social life. And I was sad about the loss of my identity in the space of ease, comfort, and connection. And I suppose I was even mildly anxious about the concept of having crossed some kind of Covid boundary during our hang that might put someone at risk.
But ultimately all that was going on in that moment was my nervous system freaking the fuck out.
I called upon my hard-earned tools and resources to handle that moment, and I was able to walk it back and ground myself. But this isn’t an isolated moment, or a unique story. Moments like these have been coming up a lot.
My day to day feels more numb and detached than ever, while my capacity for handling any big spikes of emotion (good or bad!) is at its lowest in fifteen years. As a predictable result, I eventually got hit with a moment where all my tools and resources proved inadequate and the panic spiraled out of control.
Many of my clients have also been pushed to their lowest mental health points (either in a long time, or ever) over the last few months. I’ve heard more than one person say “I never thought I would feel like this again,” and “I thought I would never go back there.”
I’m sharing this because everyone thinks it’s just them, but it’s not.
If you’ve been out of whack lately— I see you. If you’ve been shut down, dissociated, detached, or numb lately— I see you. If you’ve been uncharacteristically sad, angry, depressed, anxious, impatient, or panicky lately— I see you.
If you’re having outbursts, or meltdowns, or fights with your partner. If you’re sexually shut down, or out-of-control horny. If you’re looking to the future, and feel like daily life from the Before Times now feels incomprehensible and terrifying.
I see you. You are not alone. You are not a failure.
You are simply humaning amidst trauma. And your brain and body are coping however they need to. And it sucks. It’s hard. It’s scary, and painful, and wildly uncomfortable. But you can do this. We can do this. (Note to self: I can do this.)
Sending you strength, patience, and love.
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