Trauma-proofing Yourself

For days, I’ve had this itchy feeling.  I’ve heard of people who can smell rain coming.  Well, that’s me – except I can smell trauma coming. 

It’s probably explainable.  We take in an extraordinary amount of data with what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls ‘system 2’, which is the system in our brains we like to call the ‘gut feeling’ or intuition.  Intuition takes tiny thousands – maybe millions – of morsels of information – the expressions on faces, the behavior patterns of those around us, scents, our own feelings, the situation at hand, compares them to information already in the data bank, past outcomes from similar experiences, and spits out an expectation of an outcome.  

So here is what my system 2 is telling me.  A new phase of this collective experience has already begun, but we have about two weeks before it hits us hard.  The losses – and the feelings – are about to get real. 

In 1998, I went to live in Bosnia because I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to live in a place that had experienced war.  I can now. And since then I have seen our country, to the extent that we can infer anything about Americans as a cohesive group, with different eyes. We are, in a word, a little ‘soft’.  It’s not true of all communities in the United States.  Some, like undocumented Americans and black families who suffer police violence, have developed strong skills for coping with untenable situations.  What I mean by ‘soft’ is that so many of us – especially middle and upper class white Americans – haven’t been inoculated with enough of the experiences that might toughen up a person just a bit, to help that person steer through tragedy, grab wisdom on the way, and come out the other side without haven’t latched on to a case of raging PTSD. 

Mental health gets affected by difficult experiences.  Many who are suffering make art, write stories, grow closer to their families – there are silver linings.  But a portion of the population will suffer too much. Much like Coronavirus, they won’t have a mild case. What is worrying me – what is giving me that itchy feeling – is that I fear another parallel of the Coronavirus – that our mental health needs will way outstrip the resources of the mental health treatment available.  I’m talking about for you and me, our kids – everyone you know. 

And it’s somewhat preventable. 

There is a book by Peter Levine called Trauma-proofing Your Kids: A Parent’s Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy &  Resilience..  In it he talks about how the nature of trauma is this:  being overwhelmed by a scary situation you didn’t expect.  And the feelings get stuck. 

Americans, by and large, do not expect tragedy. 

We expect low unemployment rates and thousands of movies at the touch of a finger and an LOL surprise doll at my doorstep within 24 hours.  

So, I’m left in the difficult position of wanting to prepare you for tragedy.  I want to march you toward the tragedy just a little bit – though I know you’d rather avoid it – because I want everyone I can help to avoid a raging case of PTSD (trust me – the prevention is worth a pound of cure.) 

Here goes: 

What you are scared of, is scaring you for a reason.  Because Covid-19 could happen to you or someone you know and it could be life threatening.  Your brain is telling you to prepare – that’s why you’re feeling so anxious. So stop running to the next television show, indoor activity or homeschool plan and just sit with that.  For just a minute. Right now. Just breathe. 

OK – notice where you feel that fear.  It might be a churning in your gut, an elephant on your chest, a tightness in every muscle.  Just notice. That. Right now.  

Acknowledge it.  Say hi. Say, “OK feeling, Hi, I see you.”  Just do it. What do you have to lose? 

You may then notice another feeling come up.  Because underneath fear is usually sadness. Before you can get to the sadness, you may be mad at that fear for bothering you.  For not going away because you want it to.  Or just mad at the situation. Just notice all of it. And start to think of a place in your house where you can go and cry.  Or scream into a pillow. Or pound your fists on the bed. Because if you feel the need to, at all, you need to. You need to get it out of your body.  Because you’ve lost a lot already. And you need to practice how to let that move through you. You want to get good at it. 

Next week you might lose more.  Even hearing about a friend losing someone they love creates a feeling of loss in an empathic person.  You. So let those tears flow whenever they want to come for whatever rhyme or reason they come – or no reason at all.  And really, if you have the courage, let them flow with your people. With the ones you love. The tears will stop. When they need to stop. 

It is so great that you’re keeping your kids busy with fun activities.  So keep weaving those in. But leave space for the crying. This is their moment in history too.  Don’t think they don’t feel it. They’re like radio towers picking up the frequencies of the emotions around them.  And if they start throwing tantrums – even the big kids – slow down, sit down and say, “How’s this all going for you? Because it’s a lot for everybody.”  

Great.  OK. That’s how you avoid overwhelm.  By letting the feelings move through frequently so there isn’t a backup. 

Here is how you keep yourself from being surprised by the coming wave of feelings.  You accept that they are going to happen. You don’t overblow the threat but you don’t underestimate it either.  Play with that. Try to find that middle place of knowing it will be a lot and knowing that you can’t know exactly what it will be like.  Accept that it will hurt. And that’s OK. You’ve experienced hurt before and you’re still here.  

There is a second thing that Peter Levine talks about which is really important to consider if you are to steer away from trauma.  The meaning you make about it really matters.

There is a lot of beautiful meaning being made right now.  “We’re all in this together” is one of them. “We’ll get through this”, is another.  So, keep those, but watch yourself for other meaning you might be making that doesn’t serve you.  Like, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.” Because actually, yes you can. You can believe it.  You don’t want to, but you can. It’s really, really intense – maybe more intensely emotional than you’ve ever experienced –  and you need to lean on whomever you can to support you while you get through it. Even if it’s through a screen. 

Here are some other meanings you might try to apply: 

You can’t always get what you want.  But you just might get what you need.  And that’s actually enough. (Didn’t someone say something like that once?)

You’re being called to try a new way of relating to yourself and your feelings.  You can be the kind, supportive partner, parent, friend to yourself, that you have always needed.   One who stops, listens all along the way and doesn’t try to fix it. There is nothing to fix. All your feelings make sense.  You can make it through all these feelings. 

When you come out the other side, you may feel like your life is very precious and you may feel driven to do purposeful things to help others and the planet.  

And here is my personal favorite: 

You stand on the shoulders of giants.  People around the world and over time have come through disasters, with wisdom and love intact in their minds and primary in their hearts.  You have all the tools they had, right inside you.  

So take it one slow step at a time.  One felt moment at a time. This too, one way or another, shall pass. 


Special thanks to Emilia Robinson for drawing my attention to the white privilege I wrote from in the previous version of this article.  

Let’s Do Social Distancing – With Human Connection

Social distancing, has quickly become a household term.  As a therapist, every time I hear it, I think of how important it is that we slow the pace of Covid-19 infection.  Then I think of the mental health implications of social distancing. Reading the news every day, I see dozens of headlines about the effects of Covid-19 but precious little about mental health is ever mentioned.  Why, in 2020, are we still primarily reacting to one obvious health concern without seeing the complex health context within which that concern rests? Could this be a moment to consider health as a more complex experience? 

Two things concern me about social distancing.  When you’re ensconced in a loving family, it seems clearly prudent.  Maybe even nice. But if distancing means one is home alone, that distancing quickly becomes isolation.  And isolation becomes loneliness. 

Loneliness feels awful, but it doesn’t just feel awful. It suppresses immune function.  In a 2015 interview with NPR, Steve Cole, genomics researcher at UCLA pointed out that, because evolutionarily we relied on each other for survival, the brains of human beings read loneliness as a mortal threat. The article said, “norepinephrine cascades through the body and starts shutting down immune functions like viral defense, while ramping up the production of white blood cells…this surge in these pro-inflammatory white blood cells…(which are) highly adapted to defend against wounds, (happens) at the expense of our defenses against viral diseases.”


At the expense of our defenses against viral diseases.


So, we just might avoid Covid-19, but if we don’t – if a germ gets past our plan to avoid them -, our immune systems may not be primed to fight it.  And we can avoid this by keeping social distancing from becoming social isolation. 

The second is that by social distancing without a plan for how to prevent the spread into mass isolation, we might be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  From one life-threatening health concern, to another. Because in addition to suppressing our immune systems, isolation causes depression. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.  In 2018, 48,344 Americans died. So, while we are taking crucial steps to protect against the spread of this virus, we are flirting with the possibility of more deaths by suicide with no public conversation about it at all

Everyone I talk to right now is astonished at the levels of fear we are living with.  Between the stock market tanking, the president dithering, the neighbors discriminating against coughs and nationalities, it is quite the wild ride. But I also see a beautiful humbleness.  I see people concerned about elderly and the already infirm. I see people laughing at the sheer unthinkableness of it all. There is community. There is – despite the social distancing – connection.  If you’ve ever been through a hurricane or an earthquake, you recognize what is happening. It’s what happens when there is a weather event. We talk about our experiences. We lean on each other. 

Of course, we should follow the recommendations of the WHO, the CDC and state and local officials.  But also, the best parts of ourselves need to come out of hiding in the face of this pandemic. We can be afraid but at this point, it’s not helping us to stay healthy so perhaps we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  When we are afraid, our fight or flight response is online and our ability to think creatively is off. And creative thinking is just what we’re going to need here if we’re going to not just survive, but thrive. 

This morning I woke to the news that our governor, Kate Brown, had banned gatherings of 250 or more.  Our school system followed suit and shut down all non-essential gatherings. For my family, this meant one thing.  My 4th grade daughter, who had been working harder than ever in her life for two and a half months, would not get to perform in front of an audience in her school play that night.  It was devastating to her – and to the other 70 kids desperate to show what they had learned to do. Covid-19 had hit home.

The community could have just said, “woe is me” and left it at that.  But they did something else. First, they felt their sadness for some hours and accepted it.  None of that, “it could have been worse” or “we shouldn’t think of ourselves, we should think of protecting people’s health.”  Because grief will find its way out and the opportunity to perform in front of a packed house is a loss. Then by midday, they sprung into creative thinking.  Before the end of the day they had hatched a plan for the kids to perform the play the next day, to an empty theater, with a videographer. It won’t be the same.  But it will be a way for the kids to connect with their families around their hard work. A way for the grandmothers who have to stay home to see those kids shine.  It will be a way to lessen the pain of distance. It is something.  

We need lots of somethings.  Video helps us connect now more than ever.  Let’s use it with people we would normally see.  So what if it feels a little goofy? Senior centers are cancelling all their activities.  Hollywood Senior Center is asking people to make phone calls; have kids make cards. Call your local senior center and connect – it helps you and them.  The vagus nerve which controls our emotional resiliency is toned by humming or singing. Turn up the music and sing – call your elderly parents and sing together.  Imagine this: every time we wash our hands – we make it a point to connect – to remind someone that, just like eating and sleeping, we need to have a human interaction every day. 

Do you think I’m doing this for my health?  Yes.