Coping with stress and trauma

There are 18 pounds of coffee in my refrigerator right now. Somehow, it helps me feel safe. I am aware this makes no sense. But for me, coffee is a source of comfort, and the only correct way to start the day. That beautifully brewed cup of coffee is the balm for my anxieties. Hoarding coffee is one way I am coping with life right now.

Anxieties abound in 2020. Shall we briefly recap? COVID-19, the national political scene, murder hornets, economic depression, massive loss of life, isolation, fear, racial tensions, days and nights of rage and riot, and shortages of food and toilet paper. There have been milestones in our lives that have gone without celebration or ritual; births, deaths, weddings, graduations.

This is not a list of irritations that can be soaked away in a bubble bath. These are major events affecting everyone. The accumulation of recent changes in our lives feel chaotic, disruptive and traumatic, possibly affecting physical, mental and emotional health.

Peering down, deeper into the well of our lives, we see all the things that have been hurled down, one atop another –– just this year. There are a few things that we can know about this jumble. These are the types of events that can shatter our sense of security and safety, create feelings of helplessness, and encourage us to perceive our world as a fearful place.

We should not minimize the ability of these events to produce upsetting emotions, memories or anxiety that will not go away. People can become angry, numb, disconnected and unable to trust others. Some are fortunate enough to be thoroughly insulated from any ill effects of these times. Most are not. Ongoing, soul-grinding stress requires patience and compassion to restore our mental and emotional health.

Everyone has what is known as a “window of tolerance” where were can comfortably operate. Some of us have large windows, enabling us to deal with problems, tensions and trauma to a greater degree than others. Some have small windows of tolerance, with little room to maneuver when difficulties arise. It might be said that if you are inside your window, you are operating effectively. If by some means you are thrown out of your window, you may be dealing with the experience by fight, flight or freezing –– our innate responses to danger or stress. Having some insight into the size of our personal windows can help us cope with stress. We can help ourselves get back inside our windows.

People respond to abnormal events with normal reactions. Emotional and psychological symptoms can be shock, denial, disbelief, confusion, difficulty focusing, anger, irritability, mood swings, anxiety and fear, guilt, shame, withdrawal, sadness, hopelessness, numbness, disconnectedness. Physical symptoms of psychological trauma can be insomnia, nightmares, fatigue, startle reflexes, racing heartrate, edginess and agitation, muscle tension, aches and pain.

In taking stock of ourselves and individual situations, there are some things we can keep in mind to help sort out all the things that have been tossed down the well. First, it is important to just get through these times. Be compassionate with yourself and with others. Mind the windows.

To cope with hyperarousal or fear, or disruption of your body’s natural equilibrium, exercise and movement can help repair your nervous system. Try using rhythmic movement that engages your whole body, like dancing or walking or shooting hoops.

Do not isolate yourself; keep up your social connections as much as possible. Try to express and experience negative emotions. Allow yourself to recognize and accept suffering instead of avoiding it.

Keep a log of your coping methods. This is called self-monitoring. A log can help you determine if your coping skills are helping you or making things worse. Are you sleeping much more than usual, or drinking more alcohol than usual, or not eating enough?

Dr. Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the College of Dentistry in Chicago, Illinois who lectures widely on post-traumatic stress and trauma has said this about the times we are living in: “If you are struggling, don’t feel defeated by the psychobabble. In the near future, very few people will be emerging as fitter, calmer, wiser individuals. Many Americans will be struggling, but most of us will be able to return to some kind of baseline functioning with some time.” 

She also said, “The narrative of continual self-improvement can be harmful. We live in a culture where we are trained to run away from negative emotions. Often, we want to ‘skip to the end,’ where a person emerges victorious and strong. Unfortunately, our mental health doesn’t work that way.”

Hoarding coffee is a strange method of self-soothing, I’ll admit. As far as I can tell, it’s harmless yet effective. The liberal use of humor is also a great coping skill. A belly laugh aimed down the old well everyday can work wonders. At the close of this writing, I am sipping a cup of coffee and watching one of my favorite old comedies.

Vicki Husted Biggs is a longtime social worker. She lives in Home.