COVID-19: Our Brains, Our Bodies, Our Trauma. Part 4.

Part 4: Stop Scrolling

What day is it?

Seriously. Without looking at a calendar, or the lock screen on a phone, do you know, with 100% certainty, what day it is?

A few friends and I have been doing a weekly “vibe check” (staying connected!): a text-based exchange to check-in about how we’re feeling. That typically happens on Wednesdays, but Wednesdays now feel like Thursdays, which sometimes feel like Sundays so who even knows anymore.

In the pre-COVID world, schedules were set and adhered to with great care. I relied heavily (I mean really heavily) on my weekly Google calendar. Recently, though, time has become distorted. Minutes, hours, days, and entire weeks are either fleeting or everlasting; looking ahead feels impossible. A distorted sense of time is associated with a dissociative response to stress and trauma, especially prolonged stress or trauma that feels inescapable (so, yes, COVID-19). It is the ‘Freeze” component of the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. Dissociation is not an inherently bad thing, it is normal and can be an adaptive way to manage — until it’s not. In small amounts, it looks like avoidance, numbing, or tuning out. I mention that here because if your dysregulation looks like dissociation, you may not be feeling overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, or on high alert. It may just be the opposite. You may be fluctuating between both types of responses. That is normal, too.

I’ve been in a more dissociative place as of late. I am struggling to make plans and to think ahead in both the short and long-term. I am getting my days mixed up. Hence not knowing when the “vibe check” is happening, nor how I should respond about how, exactly, I am feeling.

I’ve noticed within that text exchange, I’ve become unintentionally yet increasingly reliant on emojis. At first, I typed full paragraphs depicting my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in great detail, and my friends did the same. Now, there are a lot of laugh-cry faces, some exploding yellow heads, and without fail, the poop one.

Given my current leaning toward dissociation, this makes sense. In teaching developing social workers, I often use the metaphor of a sponge. As helpers, as carers, and just generally as human beings, we absorb a lot from the people we engage with. By the end of the day (or sometimes the end of the hour), the sponge is sopping wet. It is no longer absorbing anything, but it is spreading what’s been absorbed all over the place, making a much bigger mess.

Let’s pause here for a breath break. As you inhale, scan your body and make note of any sensation that feels at all pleasant. As you exhale, imagine sending your breath to that pleasant area, allowing the sensation to grow or intensify.

There is a neurobiological term for the concept behind my sponge metaphor: relational contagion. Yes, you can catch feelings (and not in the slang way) from another person. Dr. Bruce Perry, creator of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics discusses the biological underpinnings of relational contagion in this video. To put it simply, we are highly sensitive to the emotional states of others, and others are highly sensitive to our emotional states. This is even more pronounced during times of stress and trauma. Recall from Part 1 of this series that our brains are scanning all the time for threat in the social environment. This threat may come in the form of an interaction, ringing the stress alarm and taking the thinking brain offline. These interactions may be direct: the conversations we have (verbal), the affection or aggression we show those around us (nonverbal). But they can also be indirect — the social media we peruse, the news articles we consume. Either way, those interactions alone can greatly affect our mood and functioning.

We can become dysregulated by being with, or engaging with, dysregulated people. And, the more time we spend with people, the more likely we are to both influence and be influenced by their emotional states. Consider what this means in your household, for example, especially if you’re in an area experiencing a stay at home or shelter-in-place order. Let’s say you and a loved one, roommate, or child are both slightly dysregulated — teetering on the edge. Maybe you haven’t slept well and are feeling overwhelmed, so when they come to you with a question your tone with them is cold or harsh. Then, so is theirs. You become frustrated and raise your voice, then so do they. You continue to escalate one another over and over, neither of you able to access your thinking brain, creating a co-dysregulated loop that will not end well for either of you. Similarly, if you are communicating exclusively with people who are as panicked as you are, or more panicked than you are, these attempts at staying connected can actually shift you into a dysregulated state. Like the sponge, the mess just spreads.

Applied to indirect engagement, as you scroll through social media and are bombarded by content that is panic-inducing, often delivered by people who are themselves dysregulated, you can end up feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and fearful. You may, then, find yourself clicking on link after link and encountering still more more dysregulating information, ringing your stress response alarm louder and louder. And then, despite not truly processing or retaining what you’ve seen or read (remember, no thinking brain), you may share it — like the sponge, spreading the mess around.

What this is spelling out in a clear way is the need for us to keep (or reclaim) our calm. Luckily, if you’ve followed this full series, you already know everything you need to avoid becoming dysregulated or dysregulating others via your engagement with them. There is an important upside to relational contagion, and you are already well-versed in how to access it.

Before we bring this all together, let’s pause for a final breath break. See if you can notice the in-breath fill your throat, and then your chest, and then your belly. And the out-breath leave your belly, and then your chest, and then your throat.

First, stop scrolling. Bring dosing and structure to your media consumption. Seek out reliable sources. Choose one or two outlets to get your updates from, and limit the time you spend on these updates. Do you need to check more than once a day? Probably not. Consider engaging in self or relational regulatory activities before and after accessing the information. And before you post a link on your own social media, ask yourself — do I need to spread this mess around?

Second, prioritize your own self and relational regulation. Ring out and rinse the sponge. Many of us have been socialized to believe that our value lies in our ability to care for or support others. Self-care is a political notion, and that should not get lost in this conversation. It can feel hard or even silly to put ourselves first, but if we are to make it to the other side of this crisis with even a shred of our mental health intact, we have to. Even if at first you do so only because you know that you’ll be in a better mental and emotional place to do your care taking, put your name near the top of your priority list and keep it there. Here is where the upside comes in: if we are calm and regulated, we have the power to regulate others with our presence alone. We can utilize relational contagion to bring those around us into a more regulated state. By finding and spreading our own calm, we can help ourselves and those around us to feel better.

Third, encourage others — your family members, friends, coworkers — to prioritize their own well-being, too. Realize how easily and quickly we can set one another off right now. That whole staying connected thing really only works if we are engaging one another from a place of relative calm. Consider your sphere of influence, your role in your family and community. Know that without frequent opportunities for self and relational regulation, people won’t be able to truly hear your words, follow your directions, or receive and process information in effective ways.

Fourth, last but certainly not least: when in doubt go back to basics. Have you eaten? Do you need to drink some water? Have you used the restroom? When is the last time you got fresh air? What does your sleep hygiene look like? Don’t underestimate the ease with which we dismiss our own most basic needs, and the power in being sure they are met first.

Without intention and attention to our brains and our bodies, this collective trauma has the potential to continue to unravel our social fabric and our societal mental and emotional health for years to come. It also offers us the opportunity to shift our patterns to a more resilient and healthy place. With a basic understanding of the brain and the stress response, frequent doses of self and community care, and an abundance of patience and grace for ourselves and each other, we can move together toward healing.

So, please: take care of yourselves, reach out to each other, and don’t forget to breathe.

About the Author

Dr. Jennifer A. King is the Assistant Director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity and an Assistant Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.

Mother. Social Work Educator. Therapist. Trauma-Informed.

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