As if the past year of ongoing challenges wasn’t enough, many of us have had to deal with the additional onslaught of even more trauma imposed by the recent winter storms. It really has been such a rough time for so many and we are concerned that these events can wreak havoc with our health, including our brain health, if left unchecked.
An excellent piece by Ed Prideaux in BBC Future details the science behind the often-unseen effects of this type of “collective trauma” caused by a number of factors such as isolation, masks, school and business closures and the dramatic disruptions to our daily lives. Add all this to the foundation of fear of not just the unknown, but also of becoming ill and it really is an untenable situation.
Just a few excerpts from “How to heal the ‘mass trauma’ of Covid-19”…
"After the pandemic ends, the effects of the mass trauma it has inflicted will linger across societies for years. How might we understand this mental fallout? And what does the science of trauma suggest that we should – and shouldn't – do in order to heal?"
What makes Covid-19's trauma truly "massive", though, is its impact on the entire population – including those who will never catch the virus or even know people who have. For many, the prospect of catching a deadly invisible disease, however unrealised, is obviously and intrinsically frightening. It invites what researchers call "interoceptive fear": when our source of stress isn't an obvious threat in the external environment, but our interpretation of the body's (probably normal) mechanical processes.
If some children are traumatised for the long-term, Covid-19 risks being an intergenerational phenomenon once they grow up and have kids of their own. They could transmit their trauma through encouraging unconscious imitation, deliberate and conscious conditioning, or even possibly epigenetics, when traumatic stress materially alters a genetic inheritance (although research is early-stage). Studies of Aboriginal Australians, for example, have linked disparities and low outcomes in education completion, employment, infant mortality and other social metrics to the ripples of historic traumas."
Prideaux covers many other enlightening points in his extensive piece so we really encourage you to read it when you have a few minutes.
What about healing for patients when the challenges are so great?
Recognizing that the impacts of this collective trauma may be extended, what can and what must we do to address the impacts to health and wellbeing? We know that certain areas of the brain most affected by stress and trauma include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in these brain areas that control a number of cognitive functions such as memory and brain volume. Traumatic stress is associated with increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to subsequent stressors.1 Some studies also show that trauma in different stages of life will have different effects on brain development.2
With appropriate measures, we can implement certain actions to stay on top of All of us in day-to-day patient care must:
There is also much that individuals can do to work to remedy this trauma. Renowned spiritual writer and teacher Ekchart Tolle describes the concept of understanding your “pain-body” and dealing with present struggles as an important element of healing: “The pain-body wants to survive, just like every other entity in existence, and it can only survive if it gets you to unconsciously identify with it. It can then rise up, take you over, “become you,” and live through you. [The pain body] … needs to get its “food” through you. It will feed on any experience that resonates with its own kind of energy, anything that creates further pain in whatever form: anger, destructiveness, hatred, grief, emotional drama, violence, and even illness. So the pain-body, when it has taken you over, will create a situation in your life that reflects back its own energy frequency for it to feed on. Pain can only feed on pain. Pain cannot feed on joy. It finds it quite indigestible”.
Using Tolle’s analogies and wisdom, consider the idea of staying in an abusive relationship where you were continually sad, unhappy and unwell – but, you kept trying to change YOUR behavior in order to survive the relationship. We know that’s not the solution or path to healing. But so often we tend to cover up the trauma, make excuses, and learn to 'just live’ with the negative emotions, the emotional and physical pain as if we are the problem. This is learned behavior that is carrying on from one generation to the next. And how on earth can the body and brain heal if we are always running away from the lion on the savannah? When we are in fight or flight mode, we are ceaselessly existing in a survival mindset that imperils our critical immune health.
For more of Tolle’s wisdom and recommendations on healing from trauma see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ2GfrendQg
You can also visit our blog library for other articles about trauma and the effects on the brain.
What to know about the brain in isolation:
Our children’s mental health and the pandemic:
The brain behind the mask:
Isolation and the need to address it now:
Noted writer, meditator and speaker Diego Perez, pen name Yung Pueblo, tells us that “reclaiming our power, healing ourselves, loving ourselves, knowing ourselves – these phrases are becoming more and more common, why? Because they are the pathways to our own freedom and happiness.” While the journey toward healing can begin with each patient, we must be prepared as clinicians to recognize our role in this process as well and be part of reminding humanity it is time to be human again.
In hope and health,
Dr. Suzanne Gazda
References and additional reading:
1, 2 Bremner J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 445–461. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner
Dr. Suzanne Gazda, Integrative Neurology