In the spring of 2020, the pandemic catapulted many of us into shock and fear – our disrupted lives, our groundless routines. Much uncertainty at first turned to hope that a year later some semblance of normalcy might return. Yet not only do people continue to face uncertainty, many of us have also reached a plateau of fatigue, resignation and grief.
We live in a time of widespread disease, social and political unrest, economic divides and shattered safety nets. Whether each of us experiences the ravages of these times close to home or as part of a larger circle, the symptoms of collective trauma are widespread. Many of these symptoms – feeling overwhelmed, anxious, tired – can be familiar. One deserves special mention: numbness. As a psychiatrist with considerable experience dealing with refugees with trauma, and an author and teacher working on collective trauma, we have learned a lot about how numbness affects us all.
Newsfeeds: friend or foe?
Our news viewing habits add to our challenges. In times of uncertainty, everyone experiences vulnerability in their own way. Fears that have been dormant for years can be activated, causing low-grade stress or total anxiety. These fears are exacerbated by what one might call “the story of toxic trauma” broadcast by mainstream news channels.
The formula is simple: brutal facts coupled with strong emotion draw viewers. As the old saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Negative news about vaccine reactions or political unrest provides the ultimate sensational content for viewers. But for most Americans, this daily onslaught of negativity takes its toll on the mind, body, and emotions.
Numbness is a possible response to trauma
When a situation is overwhelming, your body protects itself by entering a “fight, flight or freeze” mode. Our responses to the pandemic and continuing uncertainty, fueled by doomscrolling and newsfeeds, range from hyperactivation (fight or flight) to numbness (freeze). While the three F’s refer to the body’s stress response at the time, these reactions can continue long after exposure to trauma.
Medically, numbness occurs when nerves are damaged, causing partial or total loss of sensation in the body. We can also describe a numbness linked 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 dissociation to heavy and heavy lethargy, which is often a symptom of severe depression. “Freezing” refers to a paralyzed or frozen state 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 level of trauma.
The numbness that many people experience and describe these days didn’t necessarily start with the pandemic, and a toxic stream of trauma stories isn’t the only source fueling it. It may have been there for many years, only to be triggered by recent personal and societal challenges.
This numbness is not simply a lack of sensation; its symptoms vary. You might experience a low level of anxiety in the background, much like an operating system running our computers in silence. You may not experience any emotion or a feeling of freezing during the day, followed by insomnia or nightmares at night. Some people who are refugees cannot watch the daily news because it is a terrifying trigger that floods them with memories of their past traumas.
How does numbness affect us collectively?
Millions of people turn to their phones and devices for daily notifications of traumatic news. These instant alerts provide little space for digestion and reflection. This nefarious combination of speed and trauma can strike our nervous systems, overwhelming us until we are too numb to comprehend the complex range of experiences that have been pouring in over the past few days, weeks and years. What is happening to us as a culture grappling with this cumulative phenomenon?
Where collective trauma currently exists, we must seek ways to facilitate dialogue and restoration. Numbness from trauma reduces our ability to witness pain. We lose our thinking ability to become aware of ourselves, which reduces empathy and compassion. Indifference and disconnection can contribute to other atrocities, fueling a feedback loop that makes new trauma more likely to occur.
Collective numbness may appear to be epidemic substance abuse; addiction to food, sex or entertainment; overuse of media; or some other way. It turns out to be a collective closure to the crisis, which can derail healing.
How can you deal with numbness and feel overwhelmed?
As individuals, we can spend more time practicing self-care, as outlined in the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma toolbox. For example, take the time to think about the resources and sources of support you have in your life. Spend quality time with family and if possible in nature. Set limits on information devices to give your nervous system a chance to relax. Turn off your notifications, leave your phone away from your bedroom overnight, and consider periodic news fasts to fully charge your system.
Develop a mindfulness the practice can help reduce stress, allowing people to digest and integrate hidden emotions or experiences buried under numbness. One option is a practice called 3-sync: imagine a journey of witnessing to yourself, moving purposefully when you first notice the state of your body, then your mind, and finally, your emotions. Following this during meditation can help you become aware of imbalances within yourself, as well as areas of strength and vitality. Another practice, global social testimony, is a conscious process of witnessing the news and digesting it with our mind, body and emotions fully present.
By working together for be with Either way, recognizing and feeling our discomfort, resistance and pain, we can come closer to integration and a sense of healing during this time of upheaval.
Follow us on Twitter @ThomasHuebl and @hprtcambridge
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