President Biden was sworn in on January 20th, 2020, one day shy of the anniversary of the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States.
Hope is finally on the horizon after a tragic year. Hope will be our anchor as we go through what is likely to be a year of more challenges and challenging processing.
I am a therapist, so politics is a tricky subject. But I am a social worker and social justice is perhaps our most important value as a profession. I believe the "both sides" rhetoric of the Trump presidency was harmful to everyone. Trump was not a normal Republican president. His presidency was harmful. During a time when our country needed a comprehensive plan and a person who was able to express empathy during a crisis, Trump was not able to do either of those things. When we needed a president to denounce white supremacy, Trump was not able to do so. When we needed a president to guide us into a peaceful transition of power, Trump was not able to do that. We all have suffered greatly.
These are the layers of 2020 and into 2021: a global pandemic, a movement for Black lives following another tragic murder of a Black person at the hands of police, a divisive election, an economic crisis, and an insurrection. But those are the collective layers, each person also has their own individual layers: close friends and family members dying of COVID-19 or unrelated causes, job loss, economic insecurity, racism and all the other -isms, loneliness, and all the other unnamed and unknown losses.
Now we are at the point when the calendar is coming around to the one year anniversaries of all of these events. Anyone who has experienced shock trauma in their past knows that anniversaries are some of the most difficult times. We need to be prepared for another difficult year.
Some anniversaries have already passed. The first reported case of the coronavirus was traced back to November 17th, 2019, but it wasn't until the end of December that we all started to hear about the virus in Wuhan, China and that it had the potential to spread.
After that things moved quickly. January 21st, 2020 was the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States. It happened in Everett, Washington in the neighboring county to where I live. Even though it was so close, things felt contained. I traveled by plane in mid-February with no mask and no concern for my safety. In late February, my chronic illness landed me in the emergency room twice, and the triage nurse and I joked when he asked me if I'd recently traveled to China. Little did either of us know what was just around the corner.
Larger companies instituted work from home policies in early March. Most people who could work from home were doing so by the middle of the month.
There was run on toilet paper and disinfectant wipes. Pictures of bare store shelves crowded the internet.
By the end of March many cities were ghost towns. We didn't understand this new disease, so we feared leaving our houses at all. Over April and May, scientists slowly revealed what they knew. How masks, social distancing, and washing hands could protect us, but that we still needed to be very careful and the worst was yet to come.
We watched the numbers rise and watched as New York City hospitals were overwhelmed and overflowing. We heard about overworked and traumatized nurses and doctors. There was not enough personal protective equipment and hospital staff were forced to reuse contaminated masks and gowns. We feared the same fate in our cities.
Everyone said, wait until summer, it will be over by the end of the summer. Other voices calmly told us it would be much, much longer. That we would have to wait for a vaccine. That it could be a year...or even two.
By June it became clear that this was not something that would be over by the end of the summer. Then, George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin, on May 25th, 2020. An uprising began in Minneapolis and spread throughout the country.
This sparked a reckoning of how embedded white supremacy is in the United States. Finally, white people were awakening to what black people had known their whole lives. The gaps in equity never closed and are still widening today. Days and weeks of unrest followed.
Into the fall, the number of COVID-19 cases rose and fell depending on location. The death toll rose across the country and around the world. When the holiday season hit, the numbers got out of control. Again hospital ICUs were overflowing and doctors were forced to make unthinkable decisions about who to treat.
In December, we learned that there would be a vaccine for COVID-19 available to the public. The first good news in a long time.
In January, we started to hear that it may be fall of 2021 before life resembled what it used to. And in the meantime we would be processing traumatic memories from the past year without access to many of our typical coping strategies: connection, fun, leaving our homes without fear.
Then, on January 6th, 2021 a group of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol in Washington D.C. Their sinister intentions and the terror lawmakers felt when hiding in offices or underground tunnels revealed themselves over the next few weeks. Another National trauma for us to process.
As we enter into the second month of 2021, most of us have hit the "pandemic wall." We are struggling to keep following the guidelines, while knowing we need to continue for much longer than we originally expected.
We don't always experience anniversaries like events on a calendar; we experience them in our bodies. Our body recognizes changes in weather, different levels of sunlight, and our surroundings. This all happens below our cognition. Your body reacts to things that most of the time you won't even know the reason why. That’s why it's important to recognize this as a possibility as the anniversaries approach in order to prepare yourself.
In reading this, your body may even be reacting in the moment. Check in with yourself. Are your muscles tense? Is there a lump in your throat? Has your heart rate increased? If so, take a moment to ground yourself. Feel what is beneath you, the floor beneath your feet, the chair beneath your sit bones. Bring to mind an image something moving downward (rain, honey, a falling leaf, energy) and disappearing into the ground.
This may be a small sign of what's to come.
What can you be prepared for? How can you increase your awareness in check in with yourself as needed?
Awareness increases self-compassion. If you recognize that anniversaries of traumatic events will have an impact on your body and senses, you can be compassionate with yourself when unpredictable thoughts and behaviors arise.
So once again we are called to be patient and we can use the evidence of the past year to show us that we are able to do so. But we need to be aware of how these triggers may rise and fall like waves. Awareness is 90% of the battle. The other 10% is learning ways to ground yourself when triggers come into your awareness.
One day we will be on the other side of this bridge. The land over there may look different and may require us to adapt to new things, but we will look back and know we were always more resilient than we thought.
"When we learn how to be resilient, we learn how to embrace the the beautifully broad spectrum of the human experience." - Jaeda Dewalt
Somatics is the practice of experiencing the internal sensations and signals of the body. Modern psychotherapists recognized this as a way to regulate the nervous system and ease symptoms of mental health issues. This modality is practiced in the right hemisphere of the brain where perception and sensation are located. The left hemisphere is responsible for cognitive processing and sequential thinking. Basically, feeling versus thinking. So much of language is cognitive; however, there are many phrases that speak more to right hemisphere processing than left.
Here are some examples of somatic phrases we use on a regular basis:
1. "Gut Feeling"
We often hear people speak of their gut feeling as a sensation that informs them whether or not to do something. This phrase puts language to what we innately know. That our feelings, not our thoughts are our most attuned guide when making decisions.
The curious thing about a gut feeling is that if we are feeling "dysregulated" (some level of anxious or depressed) we are not as in tune with the feelings of our gut and it becomes more difficult to make decisions.
We can learn to “trust our gut,” by learning to trust our body.
2. "Shouldering the responsibility"
One of the first places people notice muscle tension from the fixed action patterns of the autonomic nervous system is in their shoulders. Often people notice tension in their shoulders when they are carrying too many responsibilities or are feeling responsible for others.
In letting go of some of the responsibility we can allow our shoulders to release.
3. "Heart to heart"
In somatic therapy the space between client and therapist (or any dynamic between two people) is known as the intersubjective field. The magic is that our two hearts are talking without needing to say a word.
In everyday life when we have a "heart to heart: conversation, we are usually referring to a conversation about our feelings. We feel connection in our heart space which allows us to be open and vulnerable with each other. You may even remember leaving a "heart to heart" conversation feeling more connected to the other person.
5. "Having a backbone"
Our backbone is our somatic powerhouse. The back of the body holds what the viscera are not able to hold. As a saying, "having a backbone" means to be strong in your convictions and have the ability to stand up for yourself. In trauma sometimes that ability is lost, but it we can be regained through fostering a connection with our backbone and using it as a source of strength.
6. "Reconnect," "Remember," & "Realign"
Imagine the word as two parts—"re-connect,” "re-member," "re-align." To remember who you are is to come back to your body. Reconnecting and realigning with your whole self—mind and body. All these words have a deeper meaning if you associate it with body.
Again imagine the word as two parts—"in-sight." To look within. In therapy, I often ask if there is any "insight" into the issue at hand. This is a powerful word that can evoke a meaningful response.
What insights do you have about your somatic (physiological rather than psychological) experience?
These phrases didn't come about by chance. They arose through the right hemisphere of perception. We also understand them, because we have an awareness of these feelings. It is the way in which we are all connected. Each of our lives is made up of different experiences, but it is our shared sense of interconnectedness that bonds us together.
"The human body is not an instrument to be used, but a realm of one's being to be experienced, explored, enriched, and, thereby, educated." - Thomas Hanna
The word "gratitude" has a tendency to elicit subtle eye-rolls. Perhaps because it has been touted as a "cure all," which is always a surefire way to turn people off. Gratitude does not cure anxiety or depression or any other ailment, but it certainly is a way to move the needle.
That being said, gratitude is deeper and more meaningful than a "cure all" or trend—it has the power to transform your outlook on life.
Our brain evolved to have a negativity bias. This serves us in many ways. We are slow to trust others, which protects us. We constantly scan for dangers, which keeps us safe. We see the bad in situations, which keeps us from moving too fast. However, all this negativity seeps into our daily life and starts to weigh on us.
Try this experiment. Think of all the things you don't have: the house you want, the car you want, the clothes you want, etc. Notice how that makes you feel. To me, it feels heavy and burdensome, like I'm climbing up an endless mountain. Now think of all the things you are grateful for: the people in your life, the level of health you have in this moment, a pet you love, etc. How does that make you feel? I automatically feel lighter and brighter. More things seems possible.
Gratitude helps us confront our negativity bias and starts to train the brain to take a more neutral or positive stance. We still need to be cautious, but we can be cautiously optimistic.
Here are some ways gratitude can improve your mental health:
1. Gratitude for "waiting for the other shoe to drop" thinking.
One of the biggest challenges for people who are anxious is "waiting for the other shoe to drop." It is a huge barrier to contentment, because the moment you touch into good feelings you are immediately anxious that they will not last. Then, you start bracing for the other shoe--when is something bad going to happen and destroy this feeling of happiness?
The uncertainty of anxiety is a constant pull into some dystopian future. We think we are protecting ourselves by worrying—a Jedi mind trick of superstition. The truth is, the future will be what it will be whether or not we worry about it, so we need to learn to bring ourselves back to the present moment when things are usually okay.
The best way to do this is gratitude. I think of gratitude as the antidote to "waiting for the other shoe to drop" thinking. When you hear your inner dialogue drifting into the "what ifs," reign it in with 3 things you are grateful for in the present moment.
When I start to worry about things that are fleeting, I think about what is steady in the moment. I am grateful to have a place to live, I am grateful to live near nature, I am grateful to have what I need right now...
2. Gratitude is neuroscience.
In somatic therapy, we talk about the different neural states: optimal arousal, high arousal, and low arousal. When we encounter a stressor, we tend to leave optimal arousal and gravitate toward a heightened state or completely shut down. However, there is a small window of opportunity to notice the early warning signs of leaving optimal arousal and push the pause button on the stress response.
Start to learn your early warning signs: muscle tension (especially in the jaw, shoulders, stomach, and back), heart rate quickening, sweating, holding your breath. Each person will have different signs.
When you notice the stress response amping up, think about the things you are grateful for in your life. When you do so, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two of the feel good neurotransmitters. It also counteracts cortisol, the stress chemical. This can move us from the beginning stages of low or high arousal into optimal arousal in a matter of seconds.
3. Gratitude for vitality.
Ruminating on what we don't have puts us in a low aroused state, in other words, makes us feel sad, hopeless, and defeated. Calling to mind what we are grateful for is uplifting, it inches our mood up toward optimal arousal.
Vitality is the feeling of being alive. Think about the things that make you come alive, likely those are also things to be grateful for: the sun on your face, cooking a fragrant meal, petting your dog, laughing with friends, writing, drawing, singing…
Even just bringing our awareness to the things that give us vitality, helps us feel more alive. Amplify these feelings by noticing where you feel them in your body or if there is a color, image, or sound that represent the feeling.
4. Gratitude as a daily practice.
Shifting things in the present moment is one strength of gratitude, but moving the needle on pessimism, depression, and anxiety takes a more consistent gratitude practice. How can we incorporate gratitude into every day? There are hundreds of ways, but this is a good place to start. These are my 2 concrete gratitude practices:
-I have a note saved on my phone that I read every morning reminding myself what I have to be grateful for: this life I am living, a brand new day, my breath...
-Every night before bed I write a short journal entry about the day and then list a few things I am grateful for. I don't hold myself to a specific number, I just write down what comes to mind as I recall the day.
By using these 2 practices to bookend my days, I slowly shifted my mind towards optimism and gratitude. It didn't happen overnight and it was a challenge at first. It was even a bigger challenge when I was in poor health, but slowly, over time I have arrived at a place where gratitude is my default setting.
You may not feel ready to start a gratitude practice right now and that's okay. But keep in mind that this is a helpful tool that is available to you anytime.
"Gratitude turns what we have into enough." - Unknown
I'm Kerry (She/Her/Hers) and I am a licensed therapist, writer & speaker. This is a place to acknowledge and validate our trauma, while also learning how to turn toward aliveness and spaciousness when possible.