In the spring of 2020, the pandemic catapulted many of us into shock and fear – our lives had been changed, our routines were not fixed. The great uncertainty at the beginning turned into the hope that a year later some semblance of normalcy could return. Not only are people still faced with uncertainty, many of us have also reached a plateau of tiredness, resignation and sadness.
We are living at a time of widespread disease, social and political unrest, economic rifts and broken safety nets. Regardless of whether each of us experiences the devastation of this time near our home or as part of a larger community, the symptoms of collective trauma are common. Many of these symptoms – feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and tired – may be known. Worth a special mention: deafness. As psychiatrists with considerable experience treating traumatized refugees and as a writer and teacher working with collective trauma, we have learned a lot about how numbness affects us all.
Newsfeeds: friend or foe?
Our challenges are exacerbated by our message viewing habits. In times of uncertainty, we all experience vulnerability in our own way. Fears that have been dormant for years can be activated and lead to low stress or full-blown anxiety. These fears are exacerbated by the so-called “toxic trauma story” being broadcast by mainstream news networks.
The formula is simple: brutal facts associated with high emotions attract viewers. As the old saying goes, “When it bleeds, it leads.” Negative news about vaccination reactions or political unrest offers viewers the ultimate sensational content. But for most Americans, this daily onslaught of negativity puts a strain on their minds, bodies, and emotions.
Deafness is a possible response to trauma
When a situation is overwhelming, your body protects itself by going into fight, flight or freeze mode. Our responses to the pandemic and the ongoing uncertainty caused by doom scrolling and newsfeeds range from hyperactivation (fight or flight) to numbness (freezing). While the three Fs refer to the body’s stress response at the moment, those responses can persist long after exposure to trauma.
In medical terms, numbness occurs when nerves are damaged, resulting in partial or total loss of sensation in the body. We can also describe numbness related to our psychological well-being: a lack of enthusiasm and interest in life, a feeling of apathy and indifference. The spectrum ranges from mild apathy and disassociation to severe, severe lethargy, which is often a symptom of severe depression. “Freezing” refers to a paralyzed or frozen condition associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression. We have each worked with thousands of people – some refugees, some not – who have experienced this trauma.
The numbness that many people experience and describe today did not necessarily begin with the pandemic, nor is a toxic stream of trauma stories the only source that nourishes it. It may have been there for many years only to be triggered by recent personal and social challenges.
This numbness is not just a lack of feeling; The symptoms vary. You may have a small amount of anxiety in the background, much like an operating system that our computers run silently on. You may not feel any emotions or a feeling of frogness during the day, followed by insomnia or nightmares at night. Some people who are refugees cannot see the daily news as it is a terrible trigger that floods them with memories of their past traumas.
How does numbness affect us together?
Millions of people turn to their phones and devices to be alerted of traumatic news on a daily basis. These instant warnings leave little room for digestion or reflection. This damaging combination of speed and trauma can hit our nervous systems and overwhelm us until we are too numb to understand the complex experiences of the past few days, weeks, and years. What happens to us as a culture that deals with this cumulative phenomenon?
Where there is now collective trauma, we must find ways to facilitate dialogue and recovery. The numbness after trauma reduces our ability to testify to suffering. We lose our ability to reflect, to be aware of ourselves, which reduces empathy and compassion. Indifference and separation can add to further atrocities and create a feedback loop that makes new trauma more likely to occur.
Collective numbness can occur as an epidemic substance abuse. Addiction to food, sex, or entertainment; Media overuse; or in some other way. It shows up as a collective shutdown of the crisis that can interfere with healing.
How can you counter numbness and being overwhelmed?
As individuals, we can spend more time practicing self-care as outlined in the Harvard Program in the Refugee Trauma Toolkit. For example, take the time to think about the resources and sources of support that you have in your life. Spend time with family and, if possible, in nature. Set limits on messaging devices to allow your nervous system to relax. Turn off your notifications, keep your phone far from your bedroom at night, and allow for regular messaging fasts to fully charge your system.
Developing a mindfulness practice can help reduce stress and enable people to digest and integrate hidden emotions or experiences that are buried under deafness. One option is an exercise called 3-Sync: imagine a journey where you witness to yourself and move about on purpose, noticing the state of your body first, then your mind, and finally your emotions. By following this during meditation, you can become aware of the imbalances in yourself as well as areas of strength and vitality. Another practice, global social witness, is a conscious process where the news is seen and completely digested with our mind, body and emotions.
By working together too Be With Whatever is present, recognizing and feeling our discomfort, our resistance and our pain, we can approach integration and the feeling of healing in this time of upheaval.
Follow us on Twitter @ThomasHuebl and @hprtcambridge