Pictured Above: Taking a walk is one of the most vital things you can do to cope with stress and isolation.
Most trauma-inducing experiences are not as complex as a pandemic.
Being in a car crash can prompt survivors to be averse to automobiles. Survivors of violence — whether it be war or domestic and child abuse — often find themselves startled by loud noises or sudden movements for the rest of their lives. Survivors of extreme weather or fires or homelessness can face severe lifelong fears about losing a roof over their heads. These are all terrible traumas, but they are quantifiable and distinct.
The impacts of this first-ever global pandemic are more pervasive and perhaps more hidden than other types of scars. And they may be more likely to go untreated, as people can suffer for years in silence, not wanting to admit that their mental health is under such severe strain from something that has impacted us all.
From the stress of being a frontline worker to losing a loved one or being sick, to economic desperation, fears of public places and contagion or of empty grocery store shelves, to the scars of isolation, or entrapment with an abusive partner, the ways in which mental strain can manifest are myriad.
While anyone who experiences a traumatic event is likely to have distress reactions like trouble sleeping, fear, distraction, anger or irritability in the short term, people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder continue to experience these and other symptoms, like flashbacks, for months and even years after the trauma has passed.
“Panic and anxiety are a result of our innate fight, flight, or freeze survival mechanism given to us by our ancestors who survived God knows what. It is their legacy to us,” said Bruce Saul, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker on Shelter Island. “We need to be able to manage our stress and our stressors in multiple ways that work for each of us, individually.”
“We’ve gotta use this as a way to learn more about ourselves. Nothing like this has ever happened before,” said Mary Bromley, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in East Hampton. “I worked at 9-11, and during the AIDS crisis at St. Vincent’s in the city. Even there, there was a lot of fear. We had to isolate ourselves from our patients, but we got to a point where we knew we could hug one another and not wear masks. That isn’t true with this.”
The key to avoiding long-term trauma is to process these distressful emotions now.
“Breathing is the most important thing one can do in life in general and especially to combat anxiety. Deep breathing exercises help, but most important is to remember to breathe through all of it all the time,” said Mr. Saul. “Identifying the source of our anxiety, ie what is the thought associated with the fear, and being present in the moment can help us get through the days,weeks and months. Our emotions inform our reason but our reason must rule our behaviors, actions and decisions.”
Mental health professionals on the East End are particularly concerned about the effect the pandemic is having on teenagers, who are at a critical stage in their social development.
“They’re not mature enough to have developed a spiritual practice or a support system that is sustainable,” said Ms. Bromley. “Kids very easily can feel rejected and they can have all kinds of problems that they’re not talking to their friends about.”
She urged parents to go easy on setting rules for their teenagers during this time — being vigilant about allowing screen time or enforcing bedtimes could actually hinder their kids social development right now.
“Definitely allow them to be online and find their friends, who are going through very similar feelings,” she said.
“With children, this could impact the rest of their lives, like children who grew up in the Great Depression,” said Mr. Saul. “For teenagers, there’s a big impact. It’s the time of the peer group, and they are so engaged with each other. They have an element of loss that is different than any other age group.”
But the isolation brought on by the pandemic quarantine affects people of any age.
“Even if you’re sheltering in place with a partner, there’s a loneliness,” said Mr. Saul. “One person cannot meet all the emotional needs of another person. You need a community.”
“Laughter is important. A lot of research has been done on laughter,” he added. “There’s even laughter yoga. People sit around and laugh, and it eventually becomes natural. The endorphins it releases, there’s more need for that now than ever.”
Ms. Bromley is also a big believer in developing healthy coping skills, beginning with a spiritual practice, from yoga to prayer to a swim in the ocean.
“We have to try to integrate that into our daily lives,” she said. “Try not to overthink too far into the future. Be very present for the people we love, and for whatever we’re doing, for working in whatever capacity we’re working in. Be truly aware of the present moment and be grateful for it. We don’t know what the future is, and we never really did. We think we did. This is a perfect opportunity to remember we’re not in control of anything.”
Mr. Saul agrees.
“Try to keep things in the day. One of the biggest causes of anxiety is when people start thinking about the future,” he said. “Have a plan for dinner. We mowed the grass yesterday. We vacuumed the house today. Don’t project into the future. The most important thing people can do is self care. You can’t help anyone else if you haven’t taken care of yourself. You won’t have any reserves.”
“Resilience comes down to one’s faith, one’s belief system,” said Mr. Saul. “How do we face each day? Every day has its challenges, but this is one that’s universal. It’s shared by everyone. Oz never gave anything to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have. What is that innate resiliency within a person that we can support? This really draws on all of our internal resources.”
Ms. Bromley said it is important for everyone, even if they have a healthy relationship with the people they are living with, to make some private space within their house, or if that’s not possible, to take solo walks to recenter yourself.
This time is particularly stressful for people who are currently the victims of domestic violence, and for people who are still struggling with PTSD from an earlier trauma, she said. “Anyone who’s had a traumatic experience, big or little, will be triggered. If you are triggered, sit down, put your feet on the ground, and take many deep breaths. All of this is a kind of exercise in grounding oneself and saying a mantra to oneself — like “this too shall pass” or ‘In this moment I am OK’ or ‘I am a good person.’ I always tell kids to say ‘I am a good person.’ That’s an excellent three-minute exercise in bringing someone back to the present moment. We really have to mother ourselves.”
Ms. Bromley, who works frequently with victims of abuse, is very concerned that child abuse, which is usually reported by teachers, is now unchecked in many homes because teachers aren’t present to notice it. She has also heard that calls to domestic violence hotlines are way down.
“This is huge, and I think it’s going to go on for a while,” said Ms. Bromley. “People being abused are going to have to find another way to get help. Children are very vulnerable at this time, which is a big concern of mine.”
“There are a lot of people who are frightened and are not leaving the house at all,” she added. “We actually are allowed to leave the house. We are allowed to take a walk, as long as we are safe. If you feel in danger, you can text your therapist. Just don’t forget to delete the text. Everybody forgets that.”
Ms. Bromley also urges people to be careful about overeating or overdrinking right now.
“It’s not a time for excess. You have to be mindful,” she said. “But by the way, you can have sex during corona. This must be an issue because it’s come up a lot. Intimacy is allowed. It’s very important.”