Our Wesleyan tradition holds a rich heritage of understanding the way the whole of our created being functions. We share a long history of encouraging one another to health and wholeness in every way, just as our God designed. We believe that we are responsible for the well-being of not just our souls, but our bodies and our minds as well, in line with the command to love the Lord our God with all that we are. Sometimes that becomes difficult in times of hardship, adversity, and trauma.
As a survivor of both extended childhood trauma as well as intense crisis situations as an adult, including my time working as a crisis responder for a domestic violence agency, I have learned some things about the effect trauma has on my brain. In the years of healing I have engaged, I have learned some key truths about trauma and times of crisis. These have helped me during this year of incredible global turmoil and an astounding level of transition and crisis in my own personal life. I’m hopeful that the things I have learned on this journey can help others to care for themselves and others well in these challenging times. Here’s my best counsel for surviving times of crisis:
Now is not the time to make large decisions.
When you are going through a traumatic situation, your survival depends on being able to make the kind of in-the-moment decisions that ensure your short-term survival or well-being. Sometimes this is a necessary sacrifice to make, but sometimes our choices are not as limited as they seem when our survival-focused brain gets involved in the decision process. While your brain is focused on the crisis at hand, it is blind to other details that are critical to consider when making large decisions. Emotions also tend to become difficult to manage during times like these, and emotions can alter and even drive your decision-making process in ways that are less than ideal. Survival situations can make it very tempting to choose options that solve short-term problems but create much larger, long-term issues.
If you must make a big decision during this season, here are some tools for overcoming the shortfalls in your brain’s crisis response:
1. Take your time.
Give every large decision 24 hours at minimum to consider and pray about your decision. You need time to hear from God at the very least. It is harder to hear the more noise there is in your life, and crisis is loud. The bigger the decision, the longer you should deliberate about your choices. Besides, that gives God time to act! You wouldn’t believe how many problems He solves without our intervention.
Physiologically speaking, time gives your emotions time to calm down and gives those immediate-release adrenaline-related chemicals time to dissipate in your brain, leaving your thinking much clearer. You’ll be much better able to look at your situation objectively and see more of your options when you are calmer. Reactions are rarely helpful; responses are needed. The difference between a reaction and a response is time.
2. Take a nap.
You cannot think clearly if you are hungry, tired, or stressed. Sometimes you can’t do anything about being stressed, so while you are observing suggestion number one above, take the time to give your body some good rest, good nutrition, drink some water, and take some time to release some stress before approaching your big decision. Nutrition, hydration, and rest will make all the difference in the world in your brain function, so it is going to drastically change your ability to make a sound decision.
3. Take a poll.
Involve as many people who are wise and trustworthy in your decision as you can. They can see things that you cannot. During a crisis, your brain will be hyper-focused on certain details, leaving you blind to others. Finding a broadened external viewpoint can be immensely helpful in making a sound decision, but you can’t achieve one on your own from inside your situation. You need other people for that. Besides, they may have access to or knowledge of solutions that you don’t. You can make up for the flaws in other people’s opinions by choosing a wider variety of people from several areas of your life to include in your decision. Just remember that ultimately, your decision is yours to make, and your inner circle should be supportive and loving, not controlling and manipulative.
Now is not the time for a New Year’s Resolution.
Hear me here. We are coming up on the end of the year, and January is closing in. I, for one, will be glad to see an end to 2020, but global apocalypse rarely observes the Gregorian calendar, such as it is.
Perhaps the most traumatizing part about being in a crisis situation is when you don’t know how long it will last.
Aside from the impending new year, how many of us have shamed ourselves for gaining the dreaded “Covid 20?” We have abused ourselves for everything from gaining a few pounds to being less productive at work and school. What’s worse is taking a fearful half-glance at the relapse and overdose rates for those struggling with addiction and the suicide rates for those struggling with severe mental illness.
The truth about the brain in trauma is that it will adopt any type of mechanism that is readily available in order to help you survive and cope with what is happening. A lot of these, we call “negative” coping mechanisms (think substance abuse, promiscuity, gambling, risk-taking, cutting, etc, but also things like shopping, overeating, biting your nails, and other behaviors we use to make ourselves feel better when under stress). Some of these so-called “negative” coping mechanisms should never be engaged: I would never recommend that someone indulge a drug addiction in order to get through a crisis situation. Someone who relapses while in a crisis situation deserves support, treatment and love; relapse is very understandable, but obviously it would cause more damage than any good it could possibly do.
However, some of these less-than-ideal coping mechanisms don’t cause much damage. If biting your nails can help you get through a terrible year, then don’t beat yourself up for munching away. Bite your nails shamelessly if it helps. You can break that habit later when your situation and anxiety level are manageable. If you gained your Covid 20, love every inch of your fluffy self. You can hit the gym later when your energy isn’t devoted to getting through this. The same is true for all of you who, like me, were afraid to say that they actually lost weight during this pandemic due to stress and other factors! Regular exercise and nutrition are important, and they help during times of high stress. We have to remember, though, that gaining (or losing!) a few pounds is not something to beat yourself up about. Be as healthy as possible and love yourself while you are weak. Make space for yourself to be okay with being imperfect.
Now is the time to play.
You heard me right! In the midst of a crisis situation, the pattern we tend to follow is to pile all the work onto our shoulders and carry it as far as we can humanly go. We all have to pull from our reserves of strength from time to time and do what has to be done. Humanity’s history is full of people achieving the seemingly impossible in the face of great adversity. This is something we highly value as noble, and rightly so. However, we need to remember that trauma is caused by high levels of stress over extended periods of time.
In order to counteract and reduce the trauma your brain is taking in seasons of crisis, you actively need leisure. Leisure pursuits (hobbies and things we do to relax) allow our bodies to come out of that stressed state and begin to relieve those stress-related hormones, replacing them with the hormones that come from laughter, deep breathing, loving relationships, and relaxing or positively-stimulating pursuits. Leisure time will make your work time much more productive and will allow you to help your mental health through this crisis season.