Trauma in Lockdown – commentary on a recent Guardian podcast interview with John Crace.

link to podcast in Guardian newspaper

Each day we are being fed more info on the physical/mental health of people suffering Covid19 and coming through the other side – an ordeal for some, less so for others. It’s a relief to have something in mainstream press – explained by a director of menal health foundation for England and Wales – about the impact of lockdown and anti-virus measures on our health and connecting the dots between physical symptoms and mental impact.

The first point I want to make is that our nervous systems integrate our brains within the fabric of our bodies – there is no head/heart split. Under lockdown, with social isolation, restriction on movement and reduced access to health services, our nervous systems are being impacted with signals of life threat. Whether we realise it or not in our thinking, in these times we are activating our defenses and protective behaviours and thought processes 24/7. This means that even though we are being told that the government is responding to the threat and we are being given messages of encouragement, we are feeling threatened 24/7.

However, because we are a ‘mental’ culture, mostly dismissive of body intelligence, the interview with John Crace focuses first on his anxiety and depression as the ‘mental’ symptoms of catastrophising with worry; and only later in the podcast, he describes physical symptoms in his inability to get out of bed in the morning and the tendency to adopt foetal position because of terrible nausea and pain in his guts. As a trauma trained therapist, and someone who has experienced PTSD and unresolved traumas, I recognise that Crace is describing fundamental symptoms of trauma, which is a state of disruption and confusion/chaos in the nervous system from previous life events which are still influencing him now. This is not directly addressed, though we understand he has always been anxious and is an addict in recovery. PTSD often is easily triggered by uncertainty or threat to wellbeing. The lockdown can feel traumatic to many people, particularly those living alone and who are vulnerable, but if people also have underlying traumas that haven’t healed then their nervous systems will be in a much higher state of alert/stress than those who don’t. John Crace is one such person and I laud him for speaking out.

I’ve been noticing my own underlying trauma patterns (nowhere near as bad as Crace’s, and I’ve done a lot of therapeutic bodywork) and there are some similarities: stomach churning at times, muscular stress. I have learnt to support myself by reality checking, mindfully exercising in ways that I deeply enjoy and relaxing my body each day, and ensuring good diet/sleep patterns. An ongoing attention to your body involves awareness of your body’s feedback to what you are doing and making this a regular practice can help you find ways of relating with your body and physical symptoms directly. I recommend mindfulness, self-directed movement, and self-administered touch with an attitude of respect, curiosity and aiming to reduce intensity of outside conditions and support our bodies to settle into balance again. The thoughts might then settle and seem less intense.

This awareness can really help to build your understanding and responsive relationship with your body and nervous system and this builds resilience to stress over time. I’m glad that the doctor in the podcast does emphasise the importance of daily maintenance routines, particularly enjoyable ones. And I want to emphasise that last point: it’s really supportive to settling your nervous system if you can enjoy whatever you do to take care of yourself, as this is what helps you settle and activate the recuperative aspects of your nervous system. In these times, the keeping fit and eating healthily is important, but enjoying it will help you de-stress even more, and your body’s natural rebalancing will happen more easily. Otherwise you may just go through the motions and miss out on this fundamental support for your health and wellbeing.

Another related point I want to comment on is that a lot of the thinking and problem solving is going on – as usual – in the conceptual realm and so it’s more likely we will try to mentally work out how to deal with our stress. But especially when trauma underlies our experience, thinking might get confused by this and it is important to reduce the intensity of your physical experience first. Although it’s supportive to have some body-based movement and self-care practices on hand, if you are feeling alone in your experience, it’s deeply supportive to have another person to relate to who won’t just try to fix things by talking to you, but will be alongside you as you settle your nervous system. Our nervous systems are impacted by the nervous systems of others, so if you are stressed, it’s important to seek out people who are able to calm or soothe. If you do not have such people in your life, you may wish to contact a therapist or life coach.

I offer a free 20 minute consultation if you feel you need support. Contact me to get help to take the next step to help you support your body and nervous system in a kind, supportive way.