As we are coming towards the end of 2020, I think it’s fair to say that this has been a tough year for many people. Life has thrown a lot of crap our way in the last year, and I know some people who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress from life changes, social isolation and just general difficulties that have arisen this year.
Normally, I write a lot about energetic and spiritual health, but in this post I am going to talk about mental health and how it intersects with being a sensitive/empath. I’m also going to talk about some of my mental health struggles, what I’ve learned this year and some tips for identifying whether you are carrying traumatic stress and some ideas for releasing it.
But first of all, what is trauma, or traumatic stress?
A trauma is an event the mind is unable to process fully at the moment it occurs, due to it being very negative, sudden, and overwhelming. By its very nature, a trauma is something that threatens our survival, or an event we perceive to be life threatening.
Undergoing a trauma is effectively like having the rug pulled out from underneath us – it knocks us off our feet, damages our sense of safety in the world, and often undermines our faith or spiritual connection with God or the Universe. And because we haven’t fully integrated the trauma, it reverberates in our psyche and causes traumatic stress.
2020 has been traumatic…
…not only because our sense of safety in the world has been threatened by an invisible virus, and not only has the virus killed some peoples’ loved ones, it has also caused havoc with peoples’ health, relationships and livelihoods. To compound the negative effects, the way that we humans normally deal with trauma is to connect with others and find solace in telling our story and getting hugs. And that has been impacted, too, in that we have had to stay physically separated from one another for the most part.
I spoke to someone this year who said to me, that this pandemic is nothing in the scheme of what previous generations had to put up with. He meant, our great-grandparents and grandparents had to deal with not only a pandemic but also two world wars and a depression.
All of that is true. My grandparents went through some awful things I probably never will but there is something uniquely stressful about this pandemic in that we have had to socially isolate. That is bad news, simply because humans evolved to exist in proximity to one another. We require social (in person) contact, and if we don’t get it, then our physical and mental health suffers, and it becomes harder to heal from and release the traumatic stress we are carrying.
Towards the end of this article I’m going to give some ideas for releasing post-traumatic stress, and I’m also going to tell the story of how I was affected this year.
But first, here are some signs that you may be carrying post-traumatic stress around the events of this year (or from another event:)
- You are having nightmares
- You are having intrusive thoughts about unpleasant situations that you have experienced in the past, or just imaginary situations
- You are engaging in compulsive behaviours that you weren’t before, such as drinking too much, or eating too much
- You are suffering from new, unexplained physical symptoms, such as gastrointestinal problems, aches and pains, fibromyalgia, or chronic fatigue
- You feel withdrawn from life, and distant from other people
- You feel powerless
- You are suffering from insomnia
- You are suffering from depression
- You are suffering from anxiety
- You are suffering from ‘adrenal fatigue’
- You are suffering from hypervigilance – you often feel jumpy and ‘on edge’
- You have a preoccupation with death and/or loss – you frequently have fearful thoughts or imaginings about losing loved ones or other good things in your life
- You often feel ‘spacey’ or ungrounded
- You’re feeling chronically stressed and you can’t relax
- You’re an empath who is suffering from what I call ‘overactive empathy’ (I describe this phenomenon here.)
At the end of this article, I’m going to go into solutions that you can use to let go of post-traumatic stress, but first I want to talk about my experience of the pandemic and the struggles I’ve had this year. It may seem like over-sharing but I think it’s really important to be open about mental health, and if this article makes one person to feel less alone, or assess the impact of this year on their mental health and/or look into a solution for any stress they may be carrying, then that will make me happy.
In February 2020, I left my home in the UK and visited New Zealand for a month to see friends & family, and to collect some things in Wellington that were stored with an ex-boyfriend.
At the time, I was pretty burned out on travel (because I’d been a digital nomad for 4 years prior to this trip, and I had just settled in Yorkshire, England.) I posted this on my Facebook shortly before finishing my trip:
My resolution for the next few years was NO MORE TRAVEL. I really wanted to stay put.
I guess that was a case of ‘careful what you wish for’!
I also noticed something a bit strange on the flights back from New Zealand to the UK. The planes were empty. That had never happened before, and I’ve travelled a lot. It rang alarm bells for me.
Then when I got back to the UK at the end of February, I only had about a day and a half to get over my jet lag when Spirit told me to go from my house in the UK to collect some video equipment that was at a friend’s house in Spain (he’d been training me in how to use it) because if I didn’t go collect it now, I wouldn’t be able to get it for a long time.
I also got the guidance to stock up on several months worth of supplies so I wouldn’t need to go out. I remember when I got to my friend’s house in Spain, I had a meltdown about the info I’d received, because I knew Spirit would not be telling me to stock up on several months worth of groceries if something significant wasn’t about to happen.
I remember my friend David being a bit mystified about my meltdown.
To give a bit of background info, I am asthmatic, but I only get post-viral asthma, and I get it severely. I avoid viruses normally because I often cannot breathe properly for 2-3 weeks after a cold/flu and inhalers don’t really help. I have been to hospital lots of times in the last 5 years struggling to breathe. So I really didn’t want to get covid.
I remember stocking up on the groceries – it took me about 2-3 weeks, and the first 2 weeks of it were easy. No-one was freaking out or panic buying. I’m not sure if anyone else was doing what I was doing but it didn’t seem like they were. Then towards the end, just as I was finishing, that was when the panic buying kicked off in the UK. And as I went round supermarkets finishing my haul, I began to have flashbacks of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. I lived in Christchurch city centre during that earthquake, and it had a profound effect on my nervous system and mental health for years afterwards, because I saw some bad things in the aftermath of that quake, and I suffered from PTSD which I thought I had dealt with and had under control.
It turns out I hadn’t dealt with it fully. The flashbacks, nightmares and general anxiety I had clearly had their origins in my experiences in 2011 back in Christchurch, but they were being triggered by this experience of the pandemic. I was in fight or flight. I felt like I was back in Christchurch with all the memories of what happened during and after the quake, and I was having trouble getting myself out of it.
And then, I had just moved to Sheffield, Yorkshire, where I didn’t know many people, and I knew that if I was stocking up on several months of groceries that meant I’d also be spending a lot of time alone.
And it turns out I was going to spend 5.5 months with very little people contact at all. I’m an introvert and for about 2.5 months, I enjoyed the peace and quiet of lockdown. I used the time to work a lot and found the first half of the lockdown quite productive and enjoyable.
But then it started to get harder and I found the social isolation really tough to deal with.
I felt like a part of me was frozen inside the longer I spent alone. It was effectively solitary confinement, but in my own home for 5.5 months. However, I was very lucky that I could continue working, and from home.
I stopped driving, because there was nowhere to go. The only time I left my home was to go on solitary walks. Some days I’d walk up to 10 miles just to get out of the city and into the countryside.
It became clear that my mental health was beginning to fall apart due to the isolation. I became depressed and anxious and I knew that I needed to do something, but I didn’t know what. I wish that I had sought medication of some kind for my depression, but I’ve always been very resistant to medication. I have seasonal affective disorder that has been well managed all my life, with light therapy and other lifestyle changes, so I’ve never really needed medication and it simply wasn’t a road I wanted to go down.
In order to stay sane, I ended up leaving the UK in July 2020 and went to New Zealand where I completed 2 weeks in a quarantine hotel and then settled in Wellington, NZ.
This is me on the plane just as it was about to take off.
A friend said you can see the excitement in my eyes but actually it wasn’t excitement, it was trauma.
About 7 weeks later I was in a doctor’s office sobbing because I couldn’t stop the negative thoughts that were plaguing me. When I was at home I couldn’t get off the sofa to eat, or start my day. It was a lot like burnout, except I was also spiralling down in terms of my thoughts and feelings. It took all of my willpower to meditate daily, which I did for 6 weeks, I also walked every day in a last ditch attempt to lift my mood but it wasn’t enough. For the first time in my life, I was suffering from a depression that I couldn’t actually fix on my own, and I just couldn’t lift myself out of the hole I was in.
I needed medication and I’m so glad I got some. I’m on a low dose of mirtazapine (an anti-anxiety & anti-depressant medication) and I don’t know where I would be right now without it. I’m lucky there are no side effects and that it makes me feel back to my old self, but maybe a sightly improved version of my old self. My main worry was, would the mirtazapine affect my intuitive faculties? However, it didn’t. It seemed to improve them because the drug made me well again and that made it easier to work.
I’m still meditating and exercising and hope to be off the medication next year. I also started weekly EMDR sessions, which have been really helpful.
I’m now doing a whole lot better.
Are you carrying post traumatic stress?
I’m not sure if anyone will be able to relate to my experience, simply because firstly, I spent so much time alone and secondly, I am now speaking from a place of recovery, having moved to a place where there is hardly any covid or social distancing. But the experience of the pandemic has undoubtedly triggered old, unresolved traumas for some people, as well as creating new traumas that require healing at some point.
And so here are some ideas for dealing with post-traumatic stress…in this article I’m going to look at the most effective, evidence-based modalities out there for trauma. Towards the end of the article I’ll also talk about other ways to manage and reduce stress.
Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE)
I am starting with this one because it’s something you can do at home, and get started now, if you are suffering in the ways I mentioned above.
TRE (Trauma Releasing Exercises) are DIY trauma recovery exercises that help discharge muscular tension in the body following a traumatic experience. They were created by trauma specialist David Berceli, and they combine techniques from yoga, Tai Chi, bioenergetics, and martial arts practices.
Shaking and trembling of our skeletal muscles are natural responses to traumatic events, enabling us to release our fear and adrenaline, but humans tend to inhibit the natural shaking and trembling movements that we have during traumatic events due to social conditioning. TRE artificially induce these trembling movements in the human body, helping to release any tension that is residing in the muscles as a result of stressful or traumatic events.
TRE can be used to heal a sole instance of trauma that one is aware of, or these exercises can be used on a more regular basis to release stress and tension that has built up over time.
To find out more about these exercises for releasing trauma, check out David Berceli’s book: Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE): A Revolutionary New Method for Stress & Trauma Recovery.
(Just a note that I have no affiliation with this author or his work – it is simply a resource that my clients have found both useful and inexpensive for trauma recovery).
Now I’m going to talk about the modality that has helped me most this year:
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a type of psychotherapy created by Dr. Francine Shapiro that works with memory and the mind. Dr. Shapiro created this technique when she found that she was able to release her traumatic memories effectively by making certain eye movements while thinking about them.
I’ve got a lot out of EMDR and highly recommend it. Many of my clients have also found this healing method very effective for releasing traumatic experiences. My experience of doing EMDR has felt like putting past traumatic experiences away in the right drawers in my brain, rather than having them hanging around, still bothering me.
The EMDR website is at: EMDRIA.org. I am aware this one is a bit more tricky at the moment (unless you’re somewhere that doesn’t require social distancing) because it requires physical proximity but it is perhaps something to consider in the future.
Now let’s look at another method for releasing post-traumatic stress:
This healing method was pioneered by Dr. Peter Levine, following his research into the stress response in animals and humans.
In a Somatic Experiencing session, the client is guided to access and release trapped trauma/stress energy by tuning in to the physical sensations that she feels in her body, such as coldness, tightness or tingling. The aim of Somatic Experiencing is also to expand awareness of how our mind and body responds in certain stressful situations, and help to create healthier response patterns to stress.
This is a modality that is completely focused on releasing traumatic stress, and one that many of my clients have had success with. And even better, it can be done online, and at a distance.
You can find the website and practitioners at: TraumaHealing.org
These solutions are the big guns you want to bring in if you are suffering from the traumatic stress symptoms I mentioned earlier in this article.
The solutions below can also help, but may not be enough on their own depending on the amount of stress you’re carrying:
1. Mindfulness Meditation – (read about the incredible benefits here)
An extract from the article:
Another study revealed that meditation literally reduces the density of brain tissue associated with anxiety and worrying. If you want your stress levels to plummet, meditation may be the answer.
I would say that meditation is more of a preventative solution that can rewire your brain in terms of how it deals with stress, rather than something a traumatised person will want to use by itself to deal with traumatic stress.
2. Yoga poses for anxiety
Did you know that putting your legs against the wall for a few minutes can stop a stress spiral in its tracks? Very useful, but again not a treatment in itself for a traumatised person.
If you have something to share about your experiences this year, please do so.
Thanks for reading & may 2021 be a much better year for everyone.