by Anne-Marie Zanzal, M.Div.
As humans, we’re a collection of our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual experiences, which are intertwined to form the human condition. We might break a bone or have a disease that affects us physically. Intellectually, we worry about how we’re going to work or when we’ll get back to “normal.” Yet it also toys with our emotions making us angry, sad or depressed. On a spiritual level we might experience feelings of helplessness; wonder about our existence as we age or question “why did this happen to me?”
Personal vs Collective Trauma
We’re in the midst of a very painful time in our country. In the span of several months, we’ve entered into a global pandemic, experienced great personal upheaval in work and family lives, and now we’re in longtime-coming justified civil unrest. We’re experiencing personal and collective trauma. Personal trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes sense of self, and ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.
Collective trauma is a cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society. Aside from the horrific loss of life, collective trauma is also a crisis of meaning. For the Black community, there’s also a collective memory of trauma which is different from individual memory because collective memory persists beyond the lives of the direct survivors of the events, and is remembered by group members that may be far removed from the traumatic events in time and space.
I write the last sentence from a place of privilege and I know what I’ve experienced as a white person pales in comparison around the collective trauma our sisters and brothers of color have experienced in this country on a daily basis. I can’t imagine what it must be like to worry about my personal safety and those I love constantly. Or what it must be like to teach my children about how to deflect racist comments when they are just past toddler age or to teach my boys (and girls) how to be safe if they get pulled over by police. This is a massive collective trauma that happens and we’ve allowed it to exist within all our systems.
Until we acknowledge the legacy of collective trauma, starting with slavery, we’ll
be unable to heal as a country.
Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn
When we’re personally traumatized there are four responses – fight, flight, freeze or fawn. We all have traumatic experiences in our lives and in those moments we learn coping mechanisms. Some of us fight physically or verbally. Some of us want to take flight and get out of the situation as fast as we can. Others are frozen in place and feel helpless or unable to respond. Still, others go into caretaker mode (fawning) providing care for others to the detriment of their own
feelings. We typically have a go-to response, but all of these responses can occur.
My first response to Covid-19 was to caretake an online support group I administer, but with time I wanted to get the hell out of the quarantine situation (flight). As we moved into social unrest, I felt both the need to fight and freeze overwhelmed by all the change that needs to occur.
As all of this swirls around us, what is our response? It’s perfectly normal to feel many emotions and feel overwhelmed as we experience both collective and personal trauma. A dear therapist friend of mine recently posted a video about “what to do when you have a heavy heart.” She got it right, the times we are living in can give us a heavy heart. It challenges us in many different ways, but oftentimes we forget how much this can affect our spiritual well being.
Spiritually we may be in chaos and asking existential questions about the meaning of our existence or having an existential crisis. Our view of the world order has shifted and we haven’t yet reorganized it into new meaning. Why is this happening? Why aren’t people listening to each other? Why is there so much suffering? Why does it appear that evil is winning? Where is God in all of this?
Those of us who are religious may be struggling with the loss of our in-person faith communities. While those of us who are spiritual are no longer able to access our places of connection and wholeness.
Feed Your Spirit
Although it might take some time to reorder our belief system, we can feed our spirit. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the first thing we can do is ground ourselves in our bodies. I know I’ve become sloth-like during this period and I know it’s not good for my wellbeing. Get outside, walk, bike, dance, practice yoga, join one of the myriad of exercise programs online.
Asking questions about our emotions can be an effective way of dealing with spiritual commotion. Perhaps take this opportunity to ask questions like “Is what I’m feeling masking another emotion?” Many will express feelings through anger, but in reality, this feeling is masking other emotions such as fear or sadness. If our emotions are all over the place, we’re actually feeling grief. Grief is our body’s physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual response to loss and transition.
Acknowledging our grief is the first step in integrating it into our lives. We do not conquer grief; we learn to live with it. Try to remember whatever you feel right now doesn’t define who you are as a person because feelings come and go.
Feeding our intellect is another way we can take care of ourselves spiritually. If Covid-19 is the culprit of spiritual malaise, learn about other pandemics or medicine. If it’s about the political tension, there are some great reading lists and podcasts out there to learn about systemic racism and white privilege that’s part of our cultures.
Although we may be grounded in one faith tradition, learning from another can be helpful not only spiritually, but in expanding our worldview. Buddhist Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart” is a good place to start.
Finally, attending to our spiritual needs is just as important. If you’re a part of a religious tradition or faith community, connect with it whenever possible.
If lapsed from faith, reconnecting or finding a more appropriate one for your belief system can provide comfort. On our own, we can engage in scripture and prayer. If spiritually-minded, engage in sacred texts as well as a daily meditation practice.
Learning to care for ourselves is just as important as caring for others and it’s appropriate for some of us to just “be” during this time. Chaos and change can be very scary and it might not be the moment to engage. Some of us have the energy to engage the deeper spiritual questions that this chaos brings up.
Whatever we decide to do, it’s important to remember that we are physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual beings. No one piece is more important than the other and each deserves to be cared for and nurtured.