At the end of last week, I tested positive for Covid 19. I then found myself having to tell friends, family, clients, students, and all whom I had been in contact with.
SHAME came screaming at me…The shame of having caught it. The shame of potentially spreading it. The shame of being ill itself. The shame of not noticing I was ill.
For years I carried this belief that “I do not get ill.” I know rationally that I am a human being like the rest of us, who is liable to catch viruses and infections. However, at some point in my childhood, I developed this belief about myself, and therefore as an adult I often didn’t prioritise my own self-care. When and if I became ill, I would suppress it. Not even acknowledge it and push on through.
This period of enforced isolation has led me to reflect on how a child’s experience of being unwell may shape and influence their relationship with illness and how they look after themselves.
How does a child learn to take care of themselves when they are ill when they do not experience that care first-hand? A child may be in a Boarding School where there is no parent to check in with them, to feel their forehead for a temperature, to ask how they are feeling. Or the parent may be an overworked single mum who desperately needs to get to work each day so it is far too inconvenient to have a sick child. Often parents are stretched emotionally and physically and for various reasons may be unable to offer that soothing that child may need.
Many children therefore learn to push aside their illnesses and get on with it. Yes, this may create resilience but it may also create adults who do not notice the symptoms they have because they do not want to make a fuss and would rather keep that shame of exposing their vulnerability away.
It can be hard to rewire these brains to let them know that it is okay for them to rest and recuperate when they are ill. Sometimes as adults, there may still be that small child part inside of you who desperately needs someone to tell them that it is okay for them to rest and look after themselves and they are not an inconvenience. You have permission.
Watching the Harry and Meghan interview on Monday night, the emotion that stood out the most for me was fear. They both mentioned so many times that they felt that had no choice because their security was taken away and they felt unsafe. The fear had a sense of being historical as well as coming from the present. Women are raging about the abduction of Sarah Everard this week. Women want to feel safe and not feel scared anymore to walk home alone in the dark.
When we experience trauma, our autonomic nervous system can become mobilised, our heart rate increases, adrenaline and cortisol is released and blood rushes to our muscles and our body goes into its fight or flight state – ready to protect us from the danger. Sometimes when the danger feels too great, and we cannot fight or run our nervous system shuts us down it freezes. Our heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature decrease and pain numbing endorphins are released. However, these frightened feelings do not lay dormant forever, and they may be triggered by certain events, sounds, smells, and memories at later points in our lives.
Over this past year we have all collectively experienced Trauma. Trauma is what happens inside of us as a result of what happens to us. It is an experience, not an event. We have been told repeatedly that we are unsafe and that if we leave our house and make contact with others, we may catch a Virus that may kill us or may kill another. Our nervous systems have become hypervigilant, and we have been in a constant state of survival. It is exhausting. We are exhausted. Many of us are at tipping point. Our usual ways of managing emotional distress – whether it be through the gym, the pub, dancing, social interactions, travel – they have all been taken away from us. We have been left alone with our nervous systems – many of them hypervigilent and on the lookout for threat. A young mum recently told me how her two-year- old just automatically crosses the road now when she sees another person approaching. We have learnt to fear each other.
Even Piers Morgan could not withstand the debate on TV on Tuesday morning on GMTV and had to flee from what he may have experienced as an attack. This week, several have shared how triggered they felt listening to the wind blowing in the night. How it felt like it was coming to attack them.
So, how can we support ourselves at this time?
We can acknowledge how deeply traumatic this past year has been for us. How we have been living for over a year now in a place of extreme uncertainty. All that we thought and knew has been taken away from us. In Existential Therapy, we acknowledge that there are 4 givens of existence. These include freedom, isolation, the inevitability of death, and meaninglessness. Often when people come up against one of these it can lead to overwhelming distress. Collectively we have all come face to face with these givens over this past year and many of us have had to keep pressing on. Some of us have been trying to financially support ourselves whilst home schooling and parenting at the same time. Consumed with concern for children’s wellbeing, there is little chance to look after our own.
We can find ways to regulate our nervous system and bring us back into a grounded calm state by doing some of the activities below.
1. Have a break from the news. Stop scrolling on social media. It will keep you in a place of being repeatedly triggered.
2. Get out in nature. Look up, notice the trees, the birds. the beauty around you. Take your camera out and notice the colours around you.
3. Exercise – move your body. When we get triggered, we sometimes need to disperse the anxiety flooding us and going for a run enables our body to release the anxiety and gives us endorphins which lift our mood.
4. Call a friend. Share how you are feeling, so you are not alone with it. We are all struggling with isolation at the moment and it is essential to process your thoughts and feelings with somebody else to prevent them spiraling. We often mirror the state of those around us, so spend time with those who are calm and uplifting.
5. Do a mindful activity. Baking a cake, jigsaw puzzle, painting, yoga – something that engages your mind in the here and now. Gives your mind and body a break.
6. Gratitude. Write out daily three things you feel grateful for. It is easy to see the world as very negative at the moment and we need to remind ourselves of the positive things in our life.
7. If you really feel panicky, a useful way to ground yourself quickly is to go through your senses. Name something in the room you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste.
8. Affirmations. Tell yourself that you are Safe. Our nervous system can sometimes not differentiate between our unsafe past and new safe present.
If you feel isolated and feel you need additional support from outside your home, then seek support from a Counsellor. It can often be underestimated how supportive it can be to know you have someone alongside you, really present and listening and wanting to meet you where you are right now.
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