The other night, I came home from work and felt compelled to lie down. Not on the couch or bed, but flat on my back on the bedroom floor, simply staring up at the ceiling. I thought I would rest for a moment, but after five, 10, 20 minutes, I couldn’t persuade myself to move along. My brain and body were maxed out, and the threshold of effort to get going seemed insurmountable. I had hit a wall.
Typically, I thrive on being busy. The work tasks, social engagements, family events and general activity of “doing life” are interweaved with joy that propels me. But in the past several weeks, the pace of things has sped up and the intensity of need has increased. Couple that with a cascade of difficult personal and professional circumstances, and bam — it has felt like the weight of the world is literally resting on my shoulders.
In more “normal” times, unexpected car problems, the natural challenges of raising “tweens” or the difficulties facing loved ones may have felt like inconveniences or temporary frustrations. But right now, it all feels extraordinarily heavy. Piled on. Way too much.
This new degree of exhaustion, which for me also comes with a dose of distractedness, overwhelm, disinterest and a disembodied malaise, reminded me of something we see a lot of at CALM.
Some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder include difficulty concentrating, sleeping or feeling positive emotions, as well as decreased interest in activities and a heightened vigilance for threat. When I connected the dots between what I was feeling and the profile of a PTSD diagnosis, there was a wave of recognition — and relief in finding some kind of explanation.
It has been 18 months since the State of California imposed the first stay-at-home orders. It has been 18 months since we packed up our office and school supplies and started working and learning at home. It has been 18 months since the true scope of the threat we faced entered our lives in tangible ways. It has been 18 months since we entered the collective trauma of losing nearly 5 million people to this virus worldwide.
As we reach this temporal milestone, I found it useful to turn to research that shows us how long-lasting the effects of trauma can be. Studies on survivors of one-time trauma incidents such as car accidents, natural disasters and combat incidents demonstrate that the day-to-day impairments of PTSD often last beyond 18 months, and sometimes get harder to cope with at that point.
In many cases, trauma survivors hit their lowest low around 18 months after their trauma first happened to them.
So, if you’ve been feeling a new level of malaise like I have, you aren’t the only one. The “bell curve of trauma” aligns with the present moment — now is the time when our tanks are most likely to feel empty.
But we also have to acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing and complex. Rather than a discrete traumatic event, we’ve trudged through rolling waves of case numbers, new variants and socio-political events unfolding with the COVID crisis as the backdrop.
For some, the pandemic also created the conditions for acute traumas such as abuse at home or the loss of loved ones. Either in a steady stream, in one fell swoop or both, we have all felt some degree of pain, loss and anxiety in the past year and a half.
This has tested the stamina of our individual and community-wide resilience. In my own experience, I’ve found that the tools I usually turn to for a boost of well-being have felt inaccessible and insufficient. The physical and emotional drain has been a barrier in connecting with friends or getting a good night of sleep. But, even when those things happen, they don’t quite restore me like they did in previous months.
And if that has been my experience — as someone who feels surrounded by love and support — I worry deeply about some of our neighbors who do not have the resources or safe connections to buffer against adversity.
Whether you are running on empty, coming into or out of a period of darkness, or you see people in your life struggling to be their full, present selves, please know that you are not alone.
This is part of the post-traumatic journey that we will continue to move through. And at this moment, it is important to step back and reflect. Here are a few tips that have helped me during this difficult time:
» Pay attention to your body. Notice how you are feeling physically throughout the day and if your typical patterns of eating, sleeping or activity have changed significantly. Stretch or move when you need to and eat mindfully if you can.
» Reflect on the ups and downs of the past 18 months, and gauge where you are right now. If you’re feeling low, remember that it will get better. If you’re on an upswing, direct some energy toward building your resiliency toolkit.
» It makes sense for your coping skills to be burned out after a year and a half of constant use. Identify some new strategies for self-care that can help you get through this time.
» Rest — even when you think you can’t.
» Reach out to others — even when you feel tired. They need it, but you might, too.
The phrase “you can’t pour from an empty cup” may be overused, but it reflects where we are right now. Our cups have been leaking for a year and a half. While I may not be able to patch the leaks, I’m working on refreshing my personal resiliency practice. As we pass this 18-month mark, I encourage you to do so, too. Our collective recovery depends on it. More importantly, you deserve it.
— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.