I am writing to you at this unprecedented time in our history. A time of collective, global trauma. We’re scared. We’re vulnerable. We’re mentally exhausted. People are saying to stay positive, but I want to validate your emotions, you are safe from the catchphrase ‘good vibes only’ here.
There is so much beyond our control these days. As humans, we don’t like uncertainty at the best of times, at baseline. We thrive on timelines and surefire deadlines. So we are all trying our best to find equanimity, mental calmness, amidst this uncertainty.
It is my hope that these 17 #StayCovidCalm actionable tips, that you can take today, will help you focus on treating yourself with kindness during this difficult time. You don’t have to have a productive pandemic, just take care of yourself to the best of your abilities, and that’s more than enough.
Set media/news boundaries:
Be very discerning of the media you are consuming (stick to known reliable sources), and set boundaries around when and how you consume media. I’d recommend not to watch it right before sleep, and to set specific times during the day to read or watch and have a cut-off time.
It won’t help to check news every 15 minutes. This won’t lead to any more productive action, and will only serve to induce panic. Keep yourself updated with ONLY important, helpful facts from well-informed sites. Saturating on social media can literally overwhelm our brains.
It’s also very reasonable to set boundaries with people who are sending you information. If someone is texting you with information every hour, and it’s creating anxiety, do gently let that person know that this isn’t serving you. Take appropriate action.
Keep prepared, because it is the mindful thing to do for oneself and society at large. This means do what is recommended with as little worry as possible that you’re not doing enough. If you’re doing what’s recommended, then you are doing enough.
Allow yourself to feel all the feels:
It is not only okay, but a necessity to allow ourselves to experience the gamut of emotions we encounter, and not just try to stay positive and feel “good vibes only,” which sometimes is a message we confront on social media. Allowing ourselves to feel all we are feeling, without shame or judgment, and then seeing that we can move through these emotions, is essential for mental health right now. Our mind space is big enough for all the feels, even seemingly contradictory ones. In fact, allowing space for them is healthy. I call this “feelings the ands”, as in, “I feel this AND this.”
while it is important to allow yourself to have all the feels, it can ALSO help to take a moment to consciously express gratitude at least once each day and to take perspective. So, before you go to sleep, or after waking up, see if you can list and reflect upon three things in that very moment you feel grateful for and, if needed, you can use the same three each time. Examples include: loved ones, health, healthcare providers, leadership during this time, roof over one’s head, groceries, grocery shop personnel, the sun coming out, a breeze, the warming weather.
Create structure and routine as much as possible:
At baseline our brain’s like a sense of routine, it helps maintain perceived control, and our brain veers towards “order”, especially during a time of great uncertainty. Of all times, this is a time to build in some kind of routine to your day. This could mean going to sleep and waking up at the same time. This could mean doing virtual work in the same space every day. This could even look like a scheduled afternoon walk, as long as we are abiding by social distancing.
Social connection is paramount during this time. Even if it’s not your ideal to connect virtually, give yourself a healthy push to reach out to be in touch with and be held by a community. Even if we don’t love it, we must push ourselves to connect with others – social connection is key and crucial, even virtually. It may not be ideal but it is something that will keep you safe and healthy.
Find creative outlets:
Creative expression connects us back to ourselves. It also allows us to use our mind in ways that promote a sense of freedom in a time when we are feeling locked down.
Record history from your first-person perspective if this will help you create a sense of purpose. During so much unknown, having a call to action that creates a sense of meaning can go a really long way towards lifting depressed feelings.
Reach out to whatever you believe is out there that is greater than you. This allows us to surrender some of the burden that we might feel to have all the answers, and the need to problem solve and fix what is beyond our power to do so.
Connect to something greater/give back:
Asking how can I be of service often helps us get outside our own selves and can soften depression and anxiety. It gives us a sense of purpose, to create meaning at a time when not much seems to make sense.
Focus on what we can control vs. what we can’t:
There is so much we can’t control now, and also, at the same time, we have been given guidelines to adhere to. If we allow ourselves to follow what’s recommended, and surrender into the knowing that we can’t control much more, we might feel some anxiety relief.
Practice radical acceptance:
Practice radically accepting the present-moment for what it is. This doesn’t mean we roll over and passively resign to whatever circumstances we are experiencing. What it means is totally and completely accepting that the reality of this moment, is, in fact, the reality of this moment, and that to resist present-moment reality is not only impossible, but creates stress. Radical acceptance is a practice based on the idea that although we can’t control for the most part how life unfolds, we can, in fact, control how we perceive or react to life unfolding. Fighting against reality, even if said reality is painful, is likely to cause suffering beyond that of the reality itself.
Both weight training and cardio have mental health benefits. This can mean jumping jacks or jogging in place, or using weights you have at home while following along to a YouTube guided workout. Many gyms are also doing virtual sessions. Weight training exercise is a life force and a crucial part of mind-body-brain hygiene. Exercise has been shown to raise serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter that many antidepressants focus on producing. Exercise can also elicit endogenous endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and of course, bring more oxygenated blood to the brain.
Just as crucial as exercise is, so is stretching regularly, to ease tension and stiffness, especially if we are sitting more while in quarantine. Particularly, try to make time to stretch my psoas muscles. They are the only muscles that connect the spine to the legs, attaching from the 12th thoracic vertebra to the 5th lumbar vertebra through the pelvis and down to the femurs. Needless to say, the psoas muscles, therefore, play a crucial role in one’s core structural wellness, especially the psoas major, the biggest muscle of the group.
The absolutely mind-blowing understanding regarding the psoas muscles though, is that they have been actually touted as instrumental to one’s mental well-being as well! The psoas muscles flank the diaphragm and the many connections between the psoas muscles and the diaphragm literally link these muscles to our breath, which is sensitive to fear. When we are in a state of fear, the breath is shallow and constricted, and the diaphragm isn’t being used to take deeper, calming breaths. The psoas feels this, and holds the fear. This means that if we are in a constant fight or flight mode, due to chronic stress, then our psoas muscles are also chronically stressed and constricted. This would also mean that an over-constricted psoas, caused by poor posture for example, could actually elicit fear.
So, after hours and hours of sitting in a position that constricts our psoas muscles, it’s no wonder we have a visceral feeling of tension that seems to envelop our minds, bodies, and brains. Stretching my psoas is literally like a sigh of relief. There are videos online to help guide in how to find the psoas and how to stretch it with the most significant impact.
Maintain physical wellness:
Mental health and medical health are inextricably intertwined.
Eat regular meals: Try to eat set meals to nourish yourself. If you tend to overeat during a stressful time, see if you can take a step back, and self-soothe with other more adaptive techniques like breathwork, or distracting with a conversation with a friend. If you do eat more than you want, don’t judge yourself. This is an ongoing practice.
Limit caffeine: If you tend to panic, watch your coffee intake. Stick to one cup a day or less.
Support your immune system through diet: Of course, ask your general practitioner, certified health coach, nutritionist or functional medicine doctor before you make any changes to your regimen. Generally speaking, I suggest whole grains, high protein, berries, leafy greens, including spinach and kale.
Decrease processed sugar: Processed sugar is highly inflammatory, and does not support immunity, and can also lead to mental health challenges.
Supplements: I defer to your general practitioner here too, however, generally speaking Vitamin C, D3, and Zinc has been suggested to boost immunity. Turmeric and ginger can also play an anti-inflammatory role.
Maintain mental health care:
Maintain all regimens you were usually doing for mental health. Sometimes in crisis we let things slide, but please continue your psycho-pharmacology regimen if you have one. If you have a therapist, connect virtually. If you don’t have a therapist, you can still find one during this time, many are taking new patients even virtually. Psychologytoday.com has a search engine for therapists in your area. Also, talkspace.com and betterhelp.com are great options.
Be gentle, be gentle, be gentle:
I listed a lot of things. But ABOVE all, be gentle with yourself. Find adaptive ways to cope, and also, if you are just able to get by and breathe and do the best you can, it’s okay. There is no end to the beginnings we can take. In any moment, we can try to engage in these coping skills, and if the next moments they seem harder, we can try again in another.
Practice mindfulness and mindful living:
Whether we use an app to help guide us through a mindfulness practice, engage in deep diaphragmatic breathing, incorporate mindfulness into any daily activity, or living more mindfully, this is a way to 1. Sit with uncomfortable emotions without needing to escape them 2. Offer oneself gentleness, compassion, and nonjudgment 3. Elicit the relaxation response.
On the evening of March 26th, 2012, Yvonne Kent Pateras suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke, leaving her unable to speak or move. She also experienced “locked-in” syndrome. These are Yvonne’s own words regarding the traumatic stroke she experienced:
“I had the experience of knowing what was happening to me from the beginning. I felt a sinus rhythm in my head becoming louder. I tried to center myself, but it was over before I had time to act. I opened my mouth to shout for help-the noise that left my body was the most primordial noise. My beautiful voice had been replaced by the noise of a wounded beast. I wouldn’t hear another word for the next for 3 months. I knew that I had not only suffered a stroke, I was paralyzed and locked in. I couldn’t tell my family that I knew what was going on. I tried to just keep my neurons busy and alive. I did simple counting exercises to stay calm and occupied-to keep my adrenaline levels under control. I was determined to survive.”
After four months in the hospital, to everyone’s surprise, and with extraordinary courage, Yvonne was able to regain speech and movement. Yet, in a span of approximately ten months, she suffered three ischemic strokes, and another hemorrhagic one. Since different kinds of strokes require different treatments, medical care was challenging.
Yvonne persevered. She said that recovery required “endless effort.” She can now walk without difficulty. She has a light speech impediment and lost some functioning in her right hand.
As we now know, with post-traumatic growth, trauma like this can often serve as a catalyst for a profound awakening to an emotional and spiritual transformation. Yvonne’s awaking came in the form of writing poetry.
“Following the stroke I went through a spell of re-learning, like being born again. Feelings were overpowering my mind’s concentration and understanding. Writing verses were facilitating the expression of my feelings. Publishing my work also gave me upmost satisfaction, particularly as the response by other stroke victims was so moving. Poetry takes the weight off my legs, gives me wings!!!”
You can find Yvonne’s poetry in her book, Stroke Journeys, by clicking on this link.
There is research that those experiencing PTSD reported improved well-being in response to poetry therapy. This might be the case because a hallmark of having experienced trauma is the subsequent difficulty processing the experience, which results in avoiding and suppressing associated emotions/memories.
Poetry therapy has provided an outlet for those suffering with PTSD to start to integrate many of these feelings, and even more so, to start to reframe the traumatic experience.
Poetry therapy itself is a bit abstract to describe, but there are a few ways to engage with it. Here is a multi-model poetry therapy practice developed by Nicholas Mazza, the founding and continuing editor of the Journal of Poetry Therapy.
According to Mazza’s model, poetry therapy involves three main components:
Receptive/prescriptive: This part of therapy involves the clinician/therapist reading a poem out loud, and then subsequently encouraging the client to react to it, either verbally, non-verbally, or both. The therapist might even prompt: “Is there a particular line in the poem that resonated with you?”, or “I noticed you started to become teary-eyed when I read this line…”
Expressive/creative: This entails actual creative writing. The therapist promotes stream of consciousness writing that might aid in discovering blocked emotions, parsing felt emotions, or retrieving memories that are difficult to articulate. The therapist might offer a prompt to help someone get started.
Symbolic/ceremonial: This includes working with metaphor/simile to help further explain emotions that are hard to describe in a more literal sense. The ceremonial part may consist of writing a letter to someone they may have lost and then burning it.
The efficacy of poetry therapy is still being studied. Most of the empirical evidence for its effectiveness comes through James Pennebaker’s (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology) work in the therapeutic use of expressive writing. His studies have indicated that the use of expressive writing, even for as little as 15 minutes over the course of 4 days, resulted in positive health effects. In addition, his initial work dealt with the use of expressive writing to heal wounds from traumatic stressful events.
One case in point is that in the aftermath of 9/11, poetry was utilized as a healing mechanism. According to a New York Times article on October 1, 2001:
“In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way … Improvised memorials often conceived around poems sprang up all over the city, in store windows, at bus stops, in Washington Square Park, Brooklyn Heights, and elsewhere. …”
In some ways poetry gives us the way to speak about the unspeakable. It is more and more common for those suffering with medical challenges to write their story, many times in poetic form, to aid in their own healing. As always, it is crucial to note that just like with mindfulness approaches to trauma, poetry therapy is most often used in conjunction with other therapies.
On a personal note, I’m particularly drawn to this type of therapy and recently started studying for my MFA at Queens College. I am touched by the profound pain that is both individually and collectively felt, how this pain can displace someone from others and their selves, and yet, the profound capacity for resilience, healing, and growth. Aside from writing my own work, I hope to employ poetry as a technique to help my clients say what they couldn’t otherwise say.
Here’s an example of a poem that I recently published in the British Journal of Medical Practice in this vein:
Children inside U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility at the Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas. CBP/via REUTERS 2018
Complex trauma (C-PTSD) is still, relatively, a new term. It was coined in the 1990’s by trauma expert Judith Herman to connote repeated, prolonged (protracted, chronic) trauma. Another name sometimes used to describe the cluster of symptoms referred to as Complex PTSD is Disorders of Extreme Stress Not Otherwise Specified (DESNOS).
In reality, C-PTSD is still actually just a proposed disorder: because 92% of individuals with Complex PTSD also meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Complex PTSD is not added as a separate diagnostic classification.
I’m included in the group of many clinicians, however, who render it extraordinarily useful as a separate diagnosis. The current PTSD diagnosis often does not fully capture the severe psychological harm that occurs with prolonged, repeated trauma. While some symptoms may overlap, there are additional possible symptoms as well as possible conceptual differences.
Certainly, more precision in diagnosis leads to more precise treatment, and treatment for PTSD often fails with those experiencing C-PTSD. So, regardless of how one’s cluster of symptoms is labeled, it is crucial for a clinical to know the hallmarks of C-PTSD.
Another trauma expert, Dr. Christine Courtois, wrote that complex trauma is “a type of trauma that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively, usually over a period of time and within specific relationships and contexts.” In her well-known article, Understanding Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions, and Treatment Approaches, Dr. Courtois continues to summarize the characteristics of complex traumatic events as:
Repetitive, prolonged, or cumulative.
Most often interpersonal, involving direct harm, exploitation and maltreatment including neglect/abandonment/antipathy by primary caregivers or other ostensibly responsible adults.
Often occur at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim’s life, especially in early childhood or adolescence, but can also occur later in life and in conditions of vulnerability associated with disability/disempowerment/dependency/age/infirmity, etc.
While there are many types of repeated trauma, it is most often experienced by children who are victims of long-term physical and/or sexual abuse. It also can include: experience in a concentration camp, POW situations, long-term domestic violence, prostitution/brothel situations, and organized child exploitation rings. In all of these circumstances, according to Dr. Herman, the trauma victim is generally held in a state of captivity, physically or emotionally, and in a situation in which there is no actual or perceived way to escape.
As I write this, I humbly and painfully think about how the current #BorderCrisis is a #MentalHealthCrisis, and how this will impact these children long-term. At the heart of C-PTSD is the idea of emotional neglect. When it comes to human beings making emotional attachments and proper development – we need more than just a bed to sleep in.
C-PTSD is not a psychological death sentence, so to speak, and there is treatment, but it needs to be recognized in general, and particularly with regards to what is going on at the border. People need to know that these children need help, and like any challenge, the earlier there’s intervention, the better.
People who experience chronic trauma often report symptoms that are additional to those seen in those diagnosed with PTSD. Dr. Herman initially identified this list of additional symptoms, which aren’t all included in the diagnosis of standard PTSD:
Difficulty Regulating Emotions: May include persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, explosive anger, or inhibited anger.
Alterations in Consciousness:Includes forgetting traumatic events, reliving traumatic events, or having episodes in which one feels detached from one’s mental processes or body (dissociation).
Alterations in Self-Perception:May include helplessness, shame, guilt, stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings.
Distorted Perceptions of the Perpetrator:Examples include attributing total power to the perpetrator, becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, or preoccupied with revenge.
Difficulties with Relationships to Others:Examples include isolation, distrust, or a repeated search for a rescuer.
Somatization and/or medical problems: Somatic reactions may relate directly to the type of abuse suffered (or any physical damage endured) and can involve all major body systems.
Alteration in One’s System of Meanings:May include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair.
Personal Clinical Note: Patients of mine who have experienced complex trauma, consistently describe feeling a lack of sense of self, very low self-esteem, extreme self-loathing, difficulty in interpersonal relationships, and an inability to discern between any real or potential threats to their minds and/or bodies. Often, and while this can happen in other diagnoses and from enduring a solitary trauma, it is more likely for someone who is chronically traumatized to engage in self-destructive and self-mutilating behaviors.
Many C-PTSD researchers and clinicians report that using the same treatment paradigm as one would use for PTSD (see below), might not cut it, and might even prove problematic. In response to this, the recommended course of treatment “involves the sequencing of healing tasks across several main stages of treatment. These stages include (1) pre-treatment assessment, (2) early stage of safety, education, stabilization, skill-building, and development of the treatment alliance, (3) middle stage of trauma processing and resolution, and (4) late stage of self and relational development and life choice.”
Did you know that Emily Dickinson can change your neurophysiology? Well, maybe not Dickinson herself, but certainly the poetry she wrote.In 2013, researchers at the University of Exeter had subjects take functional MRI’s (i.e., a tool that allows the brain’s activity to be seen in real time) while they read from texts that they had never seen before, these included works of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry.The results indicated two main things:
The brain parts activated in response to reading the poetry were the same as those activated in response to hearing beloved music.
The brain’s response to poetry mimicked the brain “at rest”. That is to say, the same way the brain looks when we feel introspective.
Since humans have an innate response to rhythm and sound, it seems to make sense that poetry and music would align in the brain. Poetry as an art form predates literacy, and poetry was first employed as a way to both remember and convey oral history. Poetry is not much different than music in this way as it is found in ancient hymns and chants that delineated cultural traditions.
In addition, it appears that poetry also serves as a haven for a reflective, contemplative, and daydreaming brain. Therefore, poetry might also prove beneficial to the brain on a cognitive level.
In a 2006 study, researchers observed how brains reacted to Shakespeare’s linguistic craftiness, including his pun-making and also a technique called ‘functional shifting’ during which Shakespeare uses a noun as a verb. When the grammar shifted, the brain “lit up” and responded in its attempt to make sense of the unusual use of the word. This type of stimulation is beneficial to long-term cognitive functioning. Learning, especially learning that is not passive, is neuroprotective.
In 2013, researchers had subjects read both original Shakespeare texts as well as versions that had been translated to be more easily understood by modern audiences. When reading the complex originals, researchers noticed a more intense reaction from the language centers of the brain (for most people, their left hemisphere) as subjects strove to make meaning of the text. Furthermore, during the same study, researchers noticed that when it came to reading Shakespeare’s original poetry, brain regions related to personal and autobiographical memory were activated (found grossly in the right hemisphere).
These findings point to poetry’s ability to foster both a personal connection to a poem, as well as create a sense of self-reflection. To take the latter even further, we can extrapolate that poetry triggers what is called a “reappraisal mechanism,” or the process of reflecting and sometimes rethinking our own experiences in the context of what we are reading.
As one of the authors of the study, Professor Davis, put it:
“Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive.”
So, reading poetry, especially poetry that keeps us on our toes linguistically, is a portal into a space for our self-reflection and growth, as well as serving as a beneficial tool to keeping the brain vital.
At the very least…poetry is like music to our ears!