As soon as the pandemic hit and we were mandated to stay inside, I saw an old emotional pattern emerge in me that hadn’t been around for awhile.
It started off with extreme fatigue and then progressed to an inability to complete basic tasks. In a sense, I became frozen and felt like I just wanted to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling. For days, all I could do was lie down and only take care of basic needs like eating and showering. Everything became so overwhelming, especially when I had to confront the reality that there was a dangerous virus causing the world to come to a screeching halt.
There are three responses to trauma: fight, flight, or freeze. For me, becoming frozen is a long-standing pattern that took years to unravel. And now it’s back.
We are all experiencing trauma during this pandemic. And more so, this is triggering older trauma as well. And even though we all experience degrees of fight, flight, or freeze, we usually gravitate towards one response.
Mine is to freeze up when things become frightening or overwhelming. Freezing looks like someone is calm on the outside but really, deep down they may be imploding and unable to move. For fighters, they may find themselves becoming extra combative or irritable. Fighters tend to start internet battles or become aggressive and argumentative in conversations. And those who flee under stress may find themselves tuning out, ghosting, or avoiding things. At times the flight and freeze response may look similar but those who flee under stress are likely to still be able to get things done, just in a direction away from confronting what's happening.
Two crucial things to know about these trauma responses.
One — It’s completely normal that trauma responses are happening.
The pandemic and its resulting consequences are incredibly frightening and uncertain. Most of us have never experienced anything like this, and so we’re not going to be ok.
You may have been hearing this from many sources, but let me repeat it: it’s completely normal not to be ok right now. And if we bring as much compassion to our daily experiences as possible, we’ll be better off.
For instance, if I were to push myself and be angry about being frozen, I’d likely throw myself into an unnecessary panic, which will only lead to more dysfunction.
When I relax and accept how I’m feeling, everything softens, and I can breathe again. And the more I soften up, the more I’m able to complete simple tasks and find new ways to cope. For me, forcing myself not to be frozen, only makes me more frozen, you know what I mean? But I also find that the more compassion that I bring to this situation, the less my trauma response leads to a complete shutdown.
The same goes for those who may have the fight or flight response. “Fighters” will fight more, and “flighters” will flee more if they berate themselves for being afraid and unsure how to cope with uncertainty.
Two — It’s important to know which trauma response you have.
Meaning, it would be good to know which response is happening for you right now. Because not knowing could bring on very complicated mental health issues and an inability to cope.
Although we can experience some of them at different times, most of us gravitate towards one most of the time. If you can figure out which one that is, it will be extremely beneficial to your health during this time.
Some people really don’t know about trauma responses, let alone what they’re feeling or experiencing. So let me give some simple clues about each response that might help:
Fight response: you’ve been unusually irritable and snappy with people either in person or online.
Flight response: you’ve stopped talking to people and refuse to complete essential tasks.
Freeze response: if you’re like me, you may be extremely fatigued and finding it challenging to move around or concentrate.
Knowing which trauma response is getting activated for you will give you more empowerment over your health and wellbeing.
For example, when I started freezing up, I was able to understand that an old response was triggered. This helped me not overreact about the current situation and, instead, move into compassion quickly. In turn, I was able to avert panic and being excessively overwhelmed.
If you don’t know what’s happening, chances are you’re going to freak out more and move deeper into the trauma response. Doing so can put yourself and others at risk. So it would be a good idea if you take some time to practice self-awareness and see where you’re at.
Some helpful ways to be more self-aware are:
- Keep a journal and write every day.
- Write down common challenging themes that come up in dreams, conversations, and conflicts with others.
- Talk with someone you have an intimate relationship with and ask for feedback.
- Get still and quiet, and see what feelings or body sensations rise up in you. Write them down.
These are not normal times, but these trauma responses are normal. If you haven’t heard this yet, let me assure you that it’s totally ok not to be ok. But if you can start to understand the trauma responses coming up in you, you’ll be on a better track towards being ok soon.
We’re all doing our best to make it through the day right now, so the most important thing you need to give yourself is compassion. What I mean by compassion is to choose kindness with yourself. Choose gentle and encouraging self-talk and only do things that make your body and mind more calm and healthy. If you can't unravel your emotions right now, just give yourself some gentle encouragment to breathe and slow down until you can understand your emotions better.
I'm confident that we’ll get through this. And maybe we'll learn more about ourselves, our trauma, and the ways our trauma shows up in our life than we did before.