Shared Trauma, Shared Resilience
December 1, 2020
According to trauma researcher, Eric Gentry, PhD, if you take the generic versions of brand-name therapies for trauma, common elements emerge, such as regulating emotion, relaxation, and that narratives heal in the presence of others. Fatigue, loss, and fear are part of our shared narrative, as well as poverty, starvation, and isolation. As we near the end of 2020, reflection on the following statistics reveal the deep connections we share and how our shared experience holds potential for shared resilience.
The CDC surveyed adults in June 2020 and found that for the previous month, 40% disclosed struggling with mental health or substance use. A survey by the Pew Research Center in August 2020 found that of those who are in a lower income bracket — income less than $25K — 44% used savings and/or retirement to pay bills, and reported the disproportionate impacts among racial groups: 43% Hispanic, 40% Black, 33% Asian, and 29% White. Further, the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse in June 2020 found that the highest age category that reported "slight or no confidence in ability to pay the next rent or mortgage" was our 25-29 year-olds. So how does wellbeing fit into the context of these social justice issues? Each of us is experiencing our own set of circumstances, and we are adapting accordingly. But there are some common threads we share that can serve to intentionally protect our wellbeing, as well as help us respond to our ever-changing needs.
The core of shared trauma, shared resilience is about compassion, which means "to suffer with." Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress, together with a desire to alleviate it". This noun is embued with potential for energy and action. Whether directed towards self or others, compassion is universal and, when shared, multiplies energy and hope. The three elements of self-compassion that are derived from Kristen Neff's research can provide us with practical guidance during this time. They are self-kindness vs. self-judgment, mindfulness vs. over-identification, and common humanity vs. isolation (how awareness of our individual condition is connected to the human condition).
Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment
This first element of self-compassion is self-kindness vs. self-judgment. This is about giving yourself empathy. Right now, self-care can easily get put on the back burner, but consider the affirmation from A Caregiver's Bill of Rights, “I have the right to take care of myself. This is not an act of selfishness. It will give me the capacity to better care for others." So, put on your oxygen mask first and then help those around you.
Asking “what” questions rather than “why” questions helps us know what works for our individual life. “Why” questions, like "why can't I keep up?" can highlight our limitations (self-judgment) and stir up negative emotions, while “what” questions, like "what does my body need to feel nourished right now?" help keep us curious and positive about the future. And as you care for yourself, instead of the fear of missing out, consider a reframe: "the joy of missing out." When your inner critic rears its head, embrace yourself and offer self-kindness as you would a child.
Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
The second element of self-compassion is Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. It's easy to get swept up in the current of news and social media. Taking a moment for yourself to just notice your experience without judging allows you to be curious and not get so wrapped up, on autopilot, or "over-identified" with a story. An example would be noticing "it's raining" and thinking of all the feelings about the rain vs. simply "it's raining" and accepting that, regardless of whether you like it. Mindfulness enables us to calm so we can better access our internal strengths to set an intention on what really matters. This awareness of our strengths and values helps us recalibrate and make changes we need to adapt right now.
However, trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk highlights that mindfulness can also be challenging during times of trauma and how active coping helps us set up a cycle of competence, so it's important to consider other tools right now, as well — like becoming engaged in something you enjoy that's relaxing. A state of "flow" is "being in the zone," such as when you are playing an instrument or a sport. Flow is where you find activities that absorb your attention. In terms of coping with this pandemic, it may be more effective than mindfulness. In a recent study published on Nov. 11, 2020, researchers found that mindfulness was beneficial for reducing stress in the moment and that flow was beneficial for longer-term wellbeing. Even though they are opposites, it seems that mindfulness and distraction complement each other.
Common Humanity vs. Isolation
The final element of Kristen Neff's work on self-compassion is the recognition our common humanity vs. isolation, that is, recognizing the struggles and suffering we share from being human vs. comparing ourselves to one another, which leads to isolation. The small opportunities we create to connect in genuine ways allow us to understand each other better, builds empathy vs. negativity, and leads to compassion satisfaction. The moments of sharing information, ideas, and knowledge is where we share resilience. If you are worried about someone, just ask. People want to feel heard and cared for.
The former surgeon general Vivek Murthy writes in his recent book, "Together," that the default setting of our brains is to think of others first, regardless of personality traits. He states, "Helping patients feel known, seen, and loved is perhaps the most powerful medicine we have."
Recognizing our common humanity enables our hearts and minds to open, which humans must have to give and receive the care, access to resources, information, and hope necessary to not just survive, but thrive.
Anchor, Create, Connect, and Count Your Daily Win
So, wrapping up on a practical note with an acronym familiar to Hokie sports fans, here are a few tips for putting compassion into place as we head into winter months. Think “ACC WINS."
Anchor – How are you caring for yourself every day or most days? Know that adjustments you may have made to manage in the present are for a good reason. Other things to consider are getting outside as sunlight regulates our circadian rhythms and stress hormones, and watch the doomsday scrolling. Take an extended news break and see how you feel or stick to news limits you can control.
Create - What do you do that gives you joy, no matter what?
Connect - Be intentional about staying connected. Reach out for yourself, and check in with others. We are counting on one another to work together to keep everything open. Returning to create ways to connect that you did earlier in the pandemic may help. Consider a virtual potluck gathering where you share food on the doorsteps of your friends and family and then Zoom. And finding ways to volunteer and give of your skills or from your caring heart brings fulfillment to all.
Finally, as my dear friend and colleague Rebecca Maher, Veterinary Social Worker at NC State, always asks, "What is your daily win?" When we ask this enough, we start to look for it.
As you anchor yourself in your routines, create meaningful stories based on what gives you joy, and connect on a mutual level with other humans. Rest assured that humans have been managing traumas throughout history. We have innate resilience; however, resilient communities are not just a collection of resilient individuals, but how the individuals work together. With compassion, towards self, through non-judgmental noticing, and for the human experience, we give hope and share resilience.
The Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990
The Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (chat also available)
Crisis Text Line: 741741
Written by Trish Haak, LCSW