How to Not Get Traumatized From This Thing (As Much As Possible)

Crucial information on how to live through trauma as healthfully as possible.

The following is copy/pasted wholesale with permission from a FFB post by friend-of-a-friend Halle Ritter. Ever human being needs this information right now.

[obvious content note is obvious. No TL;DR: skip to the two numbered lists if you’re bored/short on time]

This is something I haven’t seen basically any of, so even though I can only be an intermediate conduit, I convey to you here the information communicated to me by Bessel Van der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps the Score”, in a weekend-long intensive workshop last September.

We know the general types of situations that tend to traumatize people, but we don’t have a complete understanding of mechanistically how it occurs. We have a few hints, though.

Pavlov (in addition to the famous stuff) studied traumatized dogs by accident when his laboratory flooded. The dogs couldn’t get free, so unable to flee or do something, they created new stress-based pathways. Many changed personalities afterwards, and they seemed to have lost their instinct of purpose. Post-9/11, researchers expected an enormous spike in trauma disorders in New York that never materialized as much as anticipated, whereas post-Katrina they came out in spades. British children in WWII who stayed home with their parents and got bombed tended to do better long-term than the ones evacuated alone. “Merely” neglected children develop trauma disorders at nearly the same rate as actively abused children. What are some major themes here?

  1. Stress hormones are for doing things. For running away from the threat – whatever form that may take – for working and fixing where possible. They don’t play nicely with being stuck, or with being physically prevented from taking action.
  2. “Attachment trumps trauma”. When you run home, (physically or even metaphorically) you’re going to be ok. Who is going to be there to receive you? Humans, even adult humans, need safe attachment relationships in which they experience care and not neglect.
  3. Validation defends against internalizing. When everyone around you is sympathizing and telling you how understandable your feelings and reactions are, it puts you less at risk for turning pain inwards and developing a narrative where you’re to blame for some fundamental self-aspect.

How can we apply these themes at this time? Please note that these are not “handy tips”; they’re things that could actually change the future course of your next few years.

  1. If you remember nothing else, remember this: be on guard for any narratives that sound like “I am trapped/it is futile” and “It is my fault somehow”. From the inside, trauma sounds like those narratives stuck indefinitely into the future (even after the situation has passed). See if you can work to prevent them establishing in the first place. Talk to your friends about them, so they can help you. Agency and self-compassion are critical.
  2. Quarantine poses a very real risk of generating “stuck”ness. (Spoiler: government responses are not guaranteed to prioritize your long-term mental health.) It’s really important to find ways to run and do. Probably the running doesn’t have to be literal, but it can be. Check in with yourself and figure out what would feel best for you.
  3. Quarantine also poses a risk to attachment relationships and community connection. This is very real and should not be minimized. Hold your loved ones tighter. Reach out to people who might be isolated. Treat this as a top health priority, and treat disruptions with the same seriousness you would a fever.
  4. Feel stuff. Emotions have functions – to move, to regain physiologic equilibrium, to regulate the distance of other members of your species towards/away from you. They get squirrely when you stuff them down.
  5. For fuck’s sake, validate people and don’t minimize shit. No “it’s not that bad”. No “well, it’s for everyone’s good”. No “you shouldn’t be feeling that way.” Not in a box, not with a fox.

We can talk more about the “after”, hopefully, later. But this is for now.