Corona Trauma: A Mindful Response
“The dark night is more than a learning experience; it’s a profound initiation
into a realm that nothing in the culture, so pre-occupied
with external concerns and material success, prepares you for.”
– Thomas Moore
The last couple of weeks was an emotional roller-coaster of note as I have been trying to make sense of our current reality and my response to it, as I assume all of us have been doing on various levels. I realised that we are all suffering the effects of trauma, without necessarily being aware of it. Some psychologists have already pointed this out, and more voices are surfacing that explains the process.
In her book “On Death and Dying” (1969), Elizabeth Kübler-Ross explained five stages of grief, which are exactly the stages we go through when we experience trauma. These stages are not progressive steps necessarily, but fluid phases that can be experienced all together at different times. You could have reached full acceptance of your situation, but still experience anger and grief and different times, depending on your state of mind. Some coaches have added stages to this and coined the knowledge by giving it another name, others will publish very colourful survival guides explaining this old knowledge, so you can turn to those if you need some useful and catchy pointers to help you cope during this time. I would like to reflect on my own experience and what I see especially on social media platforms currently, using the Kübler-Ross model as framework, and then end with some suggestions for Mindful Practices, my own “Survival Guide”, which are not new knowledges, but which helps to keep me sane so far, even if it is just barely on some days.
First Stage: Denial and Isolation
With Trauma, this stage follows Shock. When the Coronavirus, which later got the name COVID-19, started creating havoc in Far East, I made it off as media hype, and that it cannot be as serious as reported. We lived through bird-flu and H1N1 and I don’t know what else, all erupting in China, this can’t be so bad. Then the infection rate started soaring in Europe, and finally it hit the South African shores. My denial was then replaced with shock as I realised that this is really serious.
We then immediately moved into Lockdown, a swift movement by our government which was necessary at the time to help our already struggling Health system to prepare for the onslaught of infections. Where “isolation” during this stage normally means a natural withdrawal to process the effects of the trauma and withdrawal, lockdown forced us into this position.
What happens during this stage physiologically is that the flight-fight-freeze response is activated in the body through complex neurological and hormonal process. We see the flight response playing out when people withdraw socially and refuse to engage with their reality. It can even strengthen the denial period.
The fight response is the survival instinct that kicks in and is useful and positive energy. We jumped into action to make creative plans for overcoming challenges during this lockdown period. Some enjoyed the period as a prolonged holiday to give attention to their homes, others discovered hidden talents, especially in the baking department. I think 2020 will also be remembered for the return of the banana bread during Lockdown. We had to adapt to new ways of working especially online. I personally had to overcome my blocks against technology and embrace it as a necessary tool in providing ongoing support to my clients and offering Meditation Classes online.
The freeze response marks the period of numbness and an inability to move in any direction. It is completely fine and sometimes necessary to just lie still, not doing anything, and if you feel like pulling the covers over your head and sleep the whole day, it is what your system needs. The body will restore to normal functioning in its own time. However, if it carries on for too long, and the numbness is exacerbated by fear of what the future holds, then help is needed. I also felt this numbness for a couple of weeks, and even though I worked hard to get my technological tools in place and continued working on my website pages, the fears around income and security of my practice were quite disabling at times. I didn’t get to the writing that I forecasted for the last month.
If denial continues, it becomes unproductive and sometimes destructive. We see denial currently playing out in the form of people denying that the virus actually exists. The question “Who knows anybody that died from the virus?” is a good indicator of this position. Others deny the seriousness of this virus by constantly comparing statistics with amongst others flu-related deaths. Others deny the seriousness of their situation by using what they call “re-framing” and saying we are all experiencing a very positive time. Others disappear into conspiracy theories of which some sound like a prolonged psychotic episode. If you get stuck in this stage, you are in trouble.
Second Stage: Anger
Anger is the very necessary emotion that kicks us out of the numbness that marks the first stage and into action. Thomas Moore describes anger as our “precious angel” that needs our attention and cultivation. The anger response, activated through the limbic system of the brain, is a vital life-force that points us to the direction of what our needs are that should be addressed. However, we need to employ the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain to help us understand why we are experiencing this emotion and to channel it in the right direction. Moore writes: “Ultimately, you transform your anger through channeling of your life force, and this liberated vitality gives you your presence as a unique personality.”
As the Lockdown period continued, many started becoming restless for relief. I sensed the restlessness in my own body. However, when measurements for Lockdown 4 were announced that made no logic sense at all, I lashed out in anger as many others did. The old ghosts of an ANC government marked by corruption, incompetence and more recently factional political games, crept out of the woodworks. The initial trust in president Ramaphosa and his management of this pandemic was replaced by distrust and opposition. ‘End-the-lockdown’ groups popped up like mushrooms on Facebook. These groups ended up becoming a cesspool of negativity, spewing of hatred and conspiracy theories.
All of a sudden social media is flooded with “COVID-19 experts” and pseudo-scientists that believe the most shocking nonsense all researched on YouTube. Scientists, governments and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is being demonised by a growing audience of people joining forces with hippies posing as gurus of enlightenment, dissident doctors, conspiracy theorists and the anti-vaccine movement to come up with “evidence” that serves no purpose but to create confusion, fuel anger and polarize society. Try and challenge some of these viewpoints, and people either try and avoid answering as they don’t have any scientific backing for what they are saying, or you get silly answers like “drink your vitamins, get sunshine and use your common sense” or you are so viciously attacked that if this was a Star Wars movie, you would end up being a heap of smouldering bones. We see a level of fanaticism that surpasses any religious crusades, only in the guise of post-scientific quackery. I find this very disturbing and worrying at the moment.
The Coronavirus did not arrive with a manual on how to manage it. Scientists, medical professional and governments (including our own), along with WHO are trying their best to find ways to manage this to prevent medical health systems to totally collapse under the pressure of infected people needing intensive care. I had to take a step back from my own anger response to take the global perspective into account again. Our government is making mistakes, and I am not going to point all of them out now, they are well known, but there are ways to deal with irrational lockdown measurements and abuse of power by the police and other government officials, other that spewing hatred on social media. We need to use our interest groups and legal bodies to enter into conversation with government on a rational level. Here enters the next stage.
Third Stage: Bargaining
Many petitions started surfacing to challenge lockdown measurements that were not congruent with the containment of the spread of the virus. I signed some of them. Whether it is effective, is questionable, but at least it is an appropriate way to channel the energy of anger and move forward. We have all the legal structures in place to challenge government practices appropriately. These need to be used instead of constantly perpetuating anger and negativity. If we stay stuck in anger responses, we keep operating on limbic firing, cancelling out the function of the pre-frontal cortex, and this is when we see rage and violence erupting.
Some enter the bargaining stage through prayer and spirituality, not only praying for healing and protection, but also for the prolongment of life in the face of terminal illness. Each person’s bargaining process will be different.
Fourth Stage: Depression
During this stage the true realisation of loss sets in. Even though clinical depression can develop during this stage, for which urgent therapy is needed, what is normally experienced are the emotions associated with grief and mourning: crying, a mixture of emotions that are sometimes vague, anger, low mood and then of course depression. We are all grieving various losses during this time: the loss of freedom of movement, our regular coffee shop and restaurant treats, loss of income and facing businesses closing down as the economy stumbles, the loss of loved ones during this period, and many more. It is important to be very patient and compassionate to our own emotional processes during this period. Take the stance of unconditional acceptance to the emotions that will surface from time to time. Emotions come and go just like thoughts do. If you have a miserable day today, you will probably feel better tomorrow.
Fifth Stage: Acceptance
This is the final stage of dealing with grief and trauma. Even though I don’t think society is fully there yet, I believe it is desperately needed that we now move towards acceptance. Acceptance does not mean resignation to the intolerable. It means adjusting to the current situation rationally and wisely and entering into negotiation with authorities where there is abuse of power or unreasonable measurements being implemented. Now, more than ever, it is necessary to end the current polarization of society, and that we all, regardless of our viewpoints, enter into conversation and collaboration to find the best way for our society forward, in order to both prevent an uncontrollable spread of the virus as well as to encourage economic activity.
Acceptance in this context means that we find ways to adapt to our current situation with intelligence and wisdom. We need to remind ourselves though that nobody has the full knowledge yet how to deal with this pandemic. This will unfold as the process develop. What we do know currently is that the infection rate is escalating, and the Health system is already under pressure. The worst is yet to come. Thomas Moore writes: “In your Dark Night of the soul you need not give up your intelligence, but you may have to change your idea of what it means to be wise in the conduct of your life. You may have to adopt a different kind of knowing, one that is suited to the darkness and not in conflict with it.” In this way we will be able to restore hope for the future.
Finally, I share some practical suggestions of what can help us all keep sane during this time. It certainly helps me from giving in to despair and a sense of hopelessness:
• Meditation: Even though I sometimes skip on this, a daily 20-minute meditation practice has helped so far to keep my mind flexible, restore balance in my body, helping me to experience peace and bring clarity of mind. I offer online Meditation Classes on Wednesday evenings if you would like to join. Visit https://johannvangreunen.co.za/online-services/ for more information.
• Exercise: This is vital. From the beginning of Lockdown I committed to doing a daily yoga class online. Along with my meditation practice, it has certainly helped to keep my mind and body flexible. On the first walk I had when Lockdown 4 was introduced, I thought I would drop down dead from exhaustion. On the contrary, my heart and lungs have not been functioning better, all thanks to the yoga practice.
• Nutrition: Eating healthy will mean different things for different people. Listen to what your body needs and don’t deny yourself treats. If I feel like baking a chocolate cake and enjoy a good portion of it, I do so. We have to watch though that we don’t end up eating because we are bored or to drown our emotions.
• Sleep well: Sometimes our sleep is disturbed due to worries about the future, especially as we face financial hardship. We might also be plagued by bizarre dreams. This is all due to the current high stress levels that we are experiencing. Practising deep breathing, listening to soothing music, and taking a warm milk drink or camomile tea can help with good sleep if you are struggling. Definitely cut down on stimulants like caffeine and engaging with electronic devices shortly before bedtime.
• Limit social media time: This is important. I was shocked when I checked how much time I spent on social media especially at the beginning of Lockdown. It was great that we could engage with a community that supported and inspired us through creative activities, but with the current information overload and negativity that abounds, it is important to limit social media. Cut out or snooze negative people.
• Guard against information overload: This links to limiting social media time. Choose at the most three trusted media sources for your updates on the virus, and don’t engage with loads of nonsense being spread on Facebook.
• Do something creative: Whether it is drawing, colouring, writing, making music, knitting, baking, gardening or whatever, do something creative that feeds the soul. Do this regularly.
• Be kind to yourself: With a stance of unconditional love and compassion, accept the emotions and negative thoughts that arise from time to time. It is OK to feel terrible sometimes. These feelings will come and go. Without denying the terrible situation you might be in, remember that you always have the choice how to respond to your situation. Be gentle and patient with yourself though.
• Practice gratitude: Do this daily. Choose to be grateful for whatever the day brings. Find the beauty and joy in every moment, even if it is just noticing the bright colour of a flower while you are experiencing the dread of your current situation. In this way we restore hope in the current darkness of COVID-19.
I end with the words of Mark Williams and Danny Penman (2011) on the practice of Mindfulness: “Practice as if your life depended on it, as in many ways, it surely does. For then will you be able to live the life you have – and live it as if it truly mattered.”
© Johann van Greunen, Cape Town, May 2020