This pandemic getting scary. Many of us are on a roller coaster of emotion as we hear the latest news about loved ones, ICU patients, makeshift morgues, and healthcare workers making life-or-death decisions on the front lines.
When this pandemic hit, I was already neck-deep in trauma recovery. For the last twelve months, I’ve been working through my own post-traumatic stress that had compounded for decades.
I know what suffering can do to a person. Shock, denial, fear, confusion, uncertainty, and helplessness are common reactions to experiencing a traumatic event. If you’ve been feeling these emotions lately, you are not alone.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from trauma recovery, it’s this:
How you process your experiences will matter in the long run.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important that you process what you are witnessing in a healthy way to minimize mental health consequences. As you go through this pandemic, consider asking yourself the *following questions:
What am I experiencing and how is it affecting me?
Schedules have been disrupted, jobs have been lost, people are overwhelmed, friends are getting sick. Going to the grocery store can tax your nerves. Hospital workers are witnessing pain and death in droves.
Distressing events can trigger a different stress-response for each of us. Are you having a hard time sleeping at night? Have you lost your appetite? Are you having difficulty concentrating? Do your muscles feel tense? Be honest about how your new reality could be triggering a physical or emotional response.
What am I feeling?
Fear, anger, sadness, guilt and shame are all common emotions in crisis. You can feel guilty for surviving when others did not. For me, this pandemic triggers fear of losing loved ones because I have already lost one parent. I know what grief and loss feel like. Or I feel unsafe because I am immunocompromised and can’t trust my body to defend itself if I get exposed.
To be human is to have emotion. Feelings act as signals, letting us know something important is going on that needs our attention. Ignoring or brushing off how you feel doesn’t make it disappear but fester below the surface. Identify the emotion and reflect on why you are feeling this way.
What am I doing with my emotion?
When events trigger strong, overwhelming emotions, we use a variety of methods in an attempt to regain emotional control. Consider how your original family responded to emotions or what society says is “acceptable”. How does that affect the way you handle your own feelings?
Self-awareness is key. Are you turning to alcohol, food or TV to feel better? Are you repressing or dismissing your feelings with “positive thinking”? Do you mentally check out, dissociate or go numb when things get overwhelming? Do you yell, blame or try to control those around you?
It’s good to distract yourself and get an emotional reprieve now and then, as long as you’re not using these things to avoid dealing with how you feel. Psychologists warn that denying, avoiding or repressing your thoughts and feelings can have greater consequences in the long run. Notice what you do with your emotion so that you can learn to regulate it in a healthy way.
What is within my control?
Being aware of your present circumstances and what you can control can help channel your fear into action. Are you safe right now? What do you need? How can you take better care of yourself? Assess your need and then act accordingly.
You may be surprised to discover you have control over a number of variables, even during a pandemic. The information you consume, how you spend your time, how you handle your emotions, how you respond to others, when and where you shop, whether or not you disinfect groceries all fall under your jurisdiction. What are some ways you can boost your immune system, practice self-care, and help those in need during this time?
Staying flexible, adapting to changes, rallying support and taking action can be a safeguard against developing traumatic stress.
What am I relying on to keep me safe?
Traumatic events create feelings of uncertainty that undermine your sense of safety and control. Pandemics magnify our mortality, reminding us that death is a universal appointment. In the busyness of life we may avoid thinking about these things, but a crisis provides us with the opportunity for deeper reflection:
What is the point of life? What happens to me after death?
What am I relying on to keep me safe? Where does my sense of control come from?
Suffering is a global human experience. I’ve been through multiple traumas, the loss of my father, the diagnosis of chronic disease, severe depression and the internal hell of PTSD. Yet even when I walk through the valley of deep darkness, I am safe because Jesus is with me (Ps 23). He will never abandon me in my time of need (Heb 13:5). I can’t imagine going through trauma and tragedy without the comfort, reassurance and help that God provides. God knows how to sustain the weary because He’s been there (Is 50:4); Jesus subjected himself to human suffering and death so that He could save humanity and give us life, both now and after death (Rom 5).
God continuously cares, provides, comforts, protects, sustains and gives peace to His people in the midst of troubled times. His presence, power and provision is available to anyone who confess their need for Him and calls on His name (Rom 10:8-13). Knowing Jesus is what makes life worth living.
What you believe about life, death, security and control will subconsciously influence your decisions, thoughts and emotions on a daily basis. Take time to wrestle with these existential questions.
Am I imagining this scenario without God in it?
Fear plays on the imagination, regurgitating worst case scenarios and what-if questions about the future.
But anxiety is like a false prophet. Its predictions almost never come true. Even if my worst fears did come true, that future scenario I’m imagining is one without God in it. Sometimes I forget that He’ll be there, just as He is now, to sustain me and see me through. I will not be alone.
If the unknown leaves you feeling out of control, remember the One who holds the world in His hands. No mountain moves, no sea rises without His permission (Ps 89). Nothing happens outside of God’s influence and authority (Ps 103:19, 1 Sam 2:8). Imagine what it would look like to trust God in whatever situation you might find yourself in.
What evidence do I have that I can get through this?
If you have survived hard times before, you can do it again. The key is remembering the victories of the past. A doctor recently remarked that we have overcome diseases before and we can do it again. This way of thinking helps you move from victim mentality to survivor mode.
This idea is also seen throughout the Bible. Over and over, Moses commanded the Israelites to remember God, what He did for them, and what He promises to do in the future. This not only increased their faith but served as a protection against fear, disobedience and misery. The same applies for God’s people today.
Have you experienced adversity in the past? How did it affect you? What emotions surfaced? How did you regulate your feelings? Where was God in the midst of it? How did He provide for you? How did He sustain you? What helped you overcome or recover? See your future in light of past victories.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. How you process traumatic events and tragedy now will matter in the long run. As we brave the next few weeks, take time to process your emotions and experiences. Lean on the support of others, and trust that God will see you through.
*The questions and suggestions in this article are from personal experience only and not intended to replace medication, therapy or other appropriate forms of treatment for mental health issues. If you are suffering from post-traumatic symptoms, please contact a local doctor or a licensed therapist for help and/or treatment.