Our 3-year-old son, Khalil, is exactly as reasonable as he should be, which is not at all. He is scared of things that aren’t all that risky ― like the sound of the washing machine ― and completely unfazed by things that could actually harm him ― like jumping enthusiastically under a countertop.
It’s not his responsibility to worry about everything. He should tell me when he’s hungry, tired or needs his inhaler, but I’m the one who should make sure we have enough food and that he’s getting enough sleep.
His dad and I pay attention to him and to his world; that’s our job. His job is to grow, learn and play. As he gets older, we will start trusting that we have taught him the lessons he needs to keep himself safe.
As adults, we are primarily responsible for our own safety, of course, but we also repeat early dynamics with our employers, doctors, the media and elected officials. We rely on authority figures to tell us what we need to know. Just as Khalil can’t keep track of his asthma medication schedule and whether he’s had enough fiber, I can’t track hurricanes, multilateral trade negotiations or pandemics.
Over the last few weeks, many of us have been confronted with the fact that the systems we thought were in place are not. We’ve had to sift through all available information about COVID-19 ― the disease caused by the new coronavirus ― and make our own decisions, something we aren’t prepared to do. When it comes to public health and epidemiology, we are all basically toddlers.
As a friend said recently, we assume the roller coaster is safe because “they” are making sure it is. However, we’ve all found out that in some very critical ways, the roller coaster of national response to a devastating pandemic is not safe at all.
I have a disability that makes me particularly vulnerable and, more concerning, my son has severe asthma. Minor colds have put him in the hospital multiple times over the last few years. Witnessing the ineptitude and dishonesty at the top has not just angered us, it’s been deeply frightening.
I’ve noticed that my emotional reactions, though justified, were initially outsized and unmanageable. Self-reflection and conversations with friends, therapists and professors have helped me identify some of my own responses and establish coping strategies while we are still very much in the midst of the crisis.
In a recent (online) social work class, my professor, Dr. Elizabeth Anable, mentioned she is noticing that her therapy clients are upset about the pandemic but that they are further distressed because our government’s failures and confusion were bringing up earlier parental traumas. We spoke after class about her observations.
She explained that traumatic childhood events serve to couple a broad range of experiences with specific responses. That coupling occurs deep in our brains and bodies ― being triggered isn’t a conscious decision. In this case, we are collectively triggered. Our reactions to a president who has failed to tell us the truth about something dangerous are linked by our bodies with moments in which we were scared, betrayed, lonely or confused as children.
The chaotic and often misleading response by our federal government has elicited feelings of anxiety, betrayal, anger and fear. We didn’t know that we had to be the ones to make the decisions we’ve made this week ― keeping our kids home from school, stocking up on medications, becoming amateur epidemiologists.
The complexity and breadth of this pandemic can trigger a variety of past pain and trauma. We don’t make it to adulthood without pain and loss, and for many of us, those early experiences are now bubbling to the surface.
Grief, betrayal, fear, loneliness and pain can lodge themselves in our bodies, and when we encounter a situation that reminds us of distressing moments in the past, our bodies and brains snap to attention, ready to do anything they can to protect us from being hurt again. We are triggered.
We don’t only recognize situations with our reasonable brains. We recognize them with our most primal fight-or-flight system, and we recognize them with our bodies. When we look at the coming months and feel the pain and fear of all our worst memories, we can become completely overwhelmed by the anxiety. At least I have.
That overwhelming anxiety can feel like collapse, disconnection and hopelessness. Anable suggests that her clients take some steps to help their bodies calm down, to root themselves in the actual moment, and to use that clarity to determine the next right thing ― to take productive and decisive actions instead of obsessively refreshing the news.
In short, we want to help our bodies and our minds focus on what is actually happening now ― not what happened in the past or what never happened at all. It’s only when we enter the present moment that we can discern how to best care for ourselves and those we love. Learning to distinguish between the present danger and historical moments will help us feel better and keep us safer.
Some tools that Anable suggests to help turn down the volume on your fear are below. These are helping me filter through some of my feelings of overwhelm so I can focus on the present situation and not be flooded by all of the emotions connected with every time I’ve been afraid in my entire life.
1. I’m connecting with people because relationships help us regulate. Healthy relationships tell our worried minds that we are safe. Today I made sure to text (almost) everyone back.
2. I’m advocating for myself and others. Action is an antidote to hopelessness. Today I updated my family’s supply spreadsheet and ordered groceries for a homeless shelter.
3. I’m being careful about what information I take in. Looking for what is true and fact-checking rumors can help us come back to the present, actual danger. I made a list with my therapist (over video, of course) of the facts about COVID-19 as I know them.
4. I’m orienting my body to turn down feelings of anxiety. Tap your arms and say, “These are my arms.” Wiggle your toes and pay attention to how that feels. Put on socks and notice where they touch your feet. Today I meditated and felt my breath moving in and out.
5. I’m paying attention to nature. Noticing the world around us helps our body know that we are not in immediate danger. Focusing on something like a flower can be a way of telling your mind that it’s safe to relax at that moment. Today I noticed that some leaves are starting to peek out on the trees outside my bedroom window.
There is anger everywhere right now ― of course, there is. We are all terrified and when we are scared we want to fight, run or freeze. We can’t run from a virus so we look for someone to fight. The exercises above can help us clarify exactly who our enemy is (it’s not the person hoarding toilet paper). There are people with power who have failed us, and that’s horrible, and I’m angry, but let’s not turn on each other. It helps me to imagine everyone as scared little babies, just doing their best.
Instead, the desire to fight can be funneled into action. I am trying to take my anger and energy and control what I can by organizing our supplies and making plans. When I feel angry about the virus testing shortage, I am trying to think about whether my family needs anything else, and whether I feel that we are safe, and then I check in with a friend or local nonprofits who are going to be stretched in the coming weeks.
Switching to a conscious response is difficult and constant work, but I am going to keep trying while knowing that the fear I feel is valid, and also multiplied by a brain and body that wants so badly to protect me that they will take every scary thing and draw connections to every other scary thing. Thank you brain. Thank you body.
I want Khalil to look back at these weeks or months we spent at home and remember a mother who was loving, present and strong. I don’t want him to pick up on my terror. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, or how long this will all be terrible. But I do know that I will recognize danger more accurately and respond more effectively if my mind and my body are rested and calm.