Navigating Isolation, Anxiety & Depression
Having had some extra time to sit with myself, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you all. It sure seems as though a lot of us are struggling right now and I hope you find this encouraging.
I don’t know about you, but I think this whole COVID-19 Pandemic can, and has, put some of us into some dangerous places. Places such as loneliness, boredom, fear, anxiety and uncertainty to name a few.
We are sitting in the unknown and that can be terrifying!
For one, sitting in the unknown can trigger our very fear of the unknown. Are we going to run into a situation that we can’t handle or have the tools to handle? If we run into such a situation then that could result in us being hurt. Fear of the unknown is real.
Secondly, sitting in the unknown is being in a situation that we cannot resolve. We don’t know when this will end. We don’t know how this may affect us financially. We don’t know how this will affect our kids healthwise and etc. in the future. That’s a lot of unknowns and it seems we have no way of getting the necessary info to resolve this dilemma for ourselves.
For those of us with CPTSD, we don’t like sitting in uncomfortable emotions. Our brain has been wired to always be looking for a solution and it thinks if It can’t find a solution, then it’ll go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. It’s challenging at best right now, we can’t resolve it and are being forced to sit in this very uncomfortable situation while trying not to go into fight, flight or freeze mode.
Thirdly, the waiting! We have a hard time waiting because waiting usually for us, means the longer it takes, that something bad is going to happen and ultimately, we are going to get hurt. That has been our experience up until now.
One could say we wouldn’t mind waiting if we knew it was only going to be for a day or so or if we were quickly able to find a solution to the problem, but right now, we are sitting in an indefinite waiting period and we don’t do well when we can’t see the finish line. I know I struggle with it.
Those of us with CPTSD react differently to uncertainty and it can affect our mental health, causing anxiety, depression and some very negative thinking.
Let’s think about this, an example of the unknown for a child growing up in a healthy home could be something like going to school for the very first time. A parent would lay out what is going to happen. You’ll get off the bus, your teacher will meet you, you’ll go to your classroom, and you’ll go to your desk, etc. This sets up a kind of picture of the events for the day for the child. Then they might offer some things the child could try while in school to feel comfortable, such as, go and sit with your friend so-and-so for lunch. In doing this they are giving you tools to succeed and have confidence to face that day. This is setting them up to face things in the future, they have been given a good foundation.
For a child growing up in an unhealthy home, the scenario is very different. There are many unknown elements in an unhealthy home that do not set us up for success. There often times is ongoing danger, multiple times a day, which sets us up for feeling we are always at risk. There is a constant unknown.
There is inconsistency. To the brain, that is an unknown. Will Dad come home from work happy or angry? How about mom, what will her mood be like? We are constantly on guard because we don’t know what to expect due to a lack of consistency.
There may be frequent changes within the family. Perhaps your family moved a lot, mine did, resulting in new schools, new friends and new anxiety from the unknown. For us, every change resulted in more pain. This unknown equals pain in our minds. Unfortunately, I have pain in my mind from this.
This next example has a bit of cruelty to it. Say that as a child you have a bicycle and the chain keeps falling off. Dad says he’ll fix it tomorrow, so we think, OK, there will be some resolution to this and that I can deal with. However, when the next day comes, Dad doesn’t fix it. Over our lifetime, we learn that whenever we’re facing the unknown, not only is it frustrating, Dad makes a promise and doesn’t follow through with it, It gets our hopes up, but it’s never delivered. It results in a cruel type of an unknown for a child because it doesn’t just result in your hopes getting crushed, it results in a lot of pain and the feeling that I’m not good enough. You are good enough!
It’s important for us to understand that for someone dealing with complex trauma, the anxiety we feel is not coming from a rational place. If we really talk about anxiety, it comes from an automatic physiological response to what has actually already happened in the past. This means that when this has become our normal, this anxiety from uncertainty, our brain then, and our body, have lived through a worst case scenario situation. We know what it feels like and are hellbent on never going back there again. When you have lived like this, as soon as your brain even detects even a small percentage that it’s going to happen, it says: I am out of here, I am not going to get hurt again by the unknown! This, very simply, explains what’s going on for those of us with CPTSD.
So if we look at this, sitting and waiting, if it can be resolved in a few days, ok, but if it’s weeks or months, this is all a big ball of the unknown and it’s not resolvable to us. Over time, sitting in the unknown, our anxiety gets a little higher every day and eventually your brain gets to a place where it says, I can’t take this anymore. It says, I’m sure the worst case scenario is going to happen and I’M OUT OF HERE and we go right into fight, flight or freeze mode. I believe it’s called distress intolerance and with a low threshold for uncomfortable emotions, our brain goes into fight, flight or freeze mode. It simply can’t hang in there any longer. This is the very real danger for us sitting in the unknown.
Let’s go a little further, what else gets triggered by sitting in the unknown? Other things can trigger us, compounding and adding to the anxiety, as the anxiety increases, it gets harder and harder to regulate our emotions.
Some of the other emotions triggered by sitting in the unknown for an extended amount of time may be the feeling of things being out of control. It triggers the worry emotion and can take us to a very negative place. For some, their anger and irritability increase and we become impatient with those around us. We feel helpless and hopeless. Our brains are saying, if I haven’t been able to resolve this by now, I never will! So we give up.
Others go to self-pity, they begin to get down and depressed and may cry and even feel sorry for themselves, like a helpless victim. I’ve been here too. Negative emotions feed off of each other creating greater emotional distress. Ugh!
All of this triggers how we think. We may obsessively be worrying about things that we cannot control. Others, including myself, think if I analyze it to death, I’ll figure it out, and we go into analysis paralysis and straight into survival mode.
Others may go to friends, asking what they think, in hopes that they can predict their very future. If that friend says something we can grab onto, we expect them to figure it out for us.
What’s happening is all irrational and we’re not thinking clearly or rationally. We are operating out of our limbic brain, but we think we’re thinking rationally, we think we’re in the cortex, we just don’t know that we are not.
We get to a point where actions begin to kick in and we start to look for instant gratification type solutions. They might seem to make us feel better, but they all make it worse long-term. This is where we can become impulsive. The brain starts thinking, I have to do something and doing something is better than nothing, so we do something.
Usually that something is not healthy. It’s an attempt to escape where we are, it’s a distraction. We may go, go, go and cannot be present, we can’t focus on anything and we are in full distraction mode. Some relapse and some sabotage their recovery. We unconsciously, or subconsciously, go back to what is predictable to us and regret it later. I know I do! personally, for me, it’s unhealthy food that I go back to. 🙄
We may relapse, or create chaos, or start to create drama, just to get rid of the feelings that we are in. Sadly, this usually takes us to a worse place. Others can’t sit quietly and they wear themselves and other people out, analyzing and talking about it, going through every fear they have and every worst case scenario. (Yep, that can be me!)
Others will shut down. They rationalize that they don’t care and close their heart because they can’t put up with this any longer, this is the freeze response.
The others mentioned have been the flight response and then the fight can be that some of us become more demanding of others. When our stress and anxiety is going up, we can create unrealistic expectations of the people closest to us. We expect them to read our minds. 🙄
When fear triggers the limbic system in order to survive, because it’s in survival mode, it shuts down the relationship areas of the brain and it doesn’t see people any longer as people to be loved or connected with or related to. It sees people as somebody they can use as an obstacle to where they want to go. You are either a friend I can use, or you are a foe. Truth!
All of these actions may seem to make things feel better for a little bit, but if you look back to see how it plays out, it makes things worse in the end. With social distancing, how do we sit in this and not go into fight, flight or freeze mode?
For starters, we need to take time to figure out what we can and cannot control. We need to accept that which we cannot control and accept that we cannot control everything. Also, we have to accept that we have to sit in this, this unknown, this uncertainty that I can’t control for right now. I can fight about it and complain about it all that I want, but until I accept that I have to sit in it, I won’t have peace.
Maybe we can’t resolve everything right now, but here are some things that we can do to help us regulate our emotions, help us sit in the unknown a little bit better.
Find a healthy distraction. Healthy distractions have their place and can be beneficial. Parent yourself, talk to yourself, whether that be out loud or inside. Picture yourself talking to your inner child and getting them ready for that first day of school. Tell them that you have the tools and resources to get through this, you’ve been learning them. You’ve been learning how to handle difficult emotions. You’ve been learning how to connect with people. You’ve been learning healthy distractions. You do have tools, you do have people to talk to and you’ve learned that you can sit in this stuff and it won’t harm you. You will still wake up tomorrow morning if you sit in it today. Coach yourself, talk yourself through it.
There are a few skills that have helped me while sitting in this time of the unknown. Number one, grounding myself regularly. By that I don’t mean punishing yourself LOL! We all have different things and ways that help us to de-escalate emotionally so that we can regulate our emotions and tolerate a certain amount of emotional distress. Some people need to do breathing exercises a number of times a day to get centered and grounded again, I personally need to remember to breathe.This may sound ridiculous, we naturally breathe, don’t we? Yes and no. A lot of us, because of the uncertainty and fear of what may happen next, have grown quite accustomed to holding our breath. It’s something that most of us aren’t even aware that we are doing. Take some good long and healing breaths and let them wash over you like a comfortable blanket.
A routine and some activity has kept me in a good headspace. This uncertainty is trying to take us to a negative headspace. So, what are things that we can do as part of a daily routine that keep us in a good headspace? Number one for a lot of people, myself included, is a spiritual connection. Taking time to surrender, to trust, to pray, and communicate with a higher power. Some do that in nature, they need to have a routine where they go for a walk or exercise every day. They need to have a time of feeling very connected to have some enjoyment in the midst of this uncertainty, figure out the routine. Part of what’s happening in this environment, this Covid-19 environment, is that it’s messed up everybody’s routine. Doing mindfulness techniques might be something you have to fight for right now, I know I have to, but as I tell myself that I have to take some time, a half hour or whatever, to myself in the morning, I am finding myself in a better headspace for the day.
These are some very real and challenging times and I hope that these tools will give you the encouragement and the help to continue to get through this time, after all, I truly believe that together, we can!
Peace and love to all of you,
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A recent article on Psychology Today blog by Myra Altman Ph.D. discusses the peer-reviewed study just accepted for publication at the Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science.
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