by: Tessa Larson, ATR-BC, LPCC
As a trauma therapist, a foundational component of my training and education was the concept of safety – one that was crucial, overarching in importance, and continually returned to as a touchpoint when working with people who have experienced trauma. While safety can refer to the most basic of needs, such as a roof over one’s head or enough income to pay the electric bill, it is also far deeper and more complex. For all of us, in one way, shape, or form, our safety and security have been uprooted by the coronavirus, whether it is a disruption in our daily routine, missing out on vital social interactions, or being unable to make the rent or mortgage payments due to lost income.
Despite the uncertainty of current stressful events, there is a sense of empowerment, resilience, and positivity that can be manifested by a few simple strategies implemented by parents, children, clinicians, and adults alike, in our collective quest for a return to safety.
Why Safety is Crucial
Neuroscience and nature have shown us again and again how our bodies and brains react to stress and trauma. Our evolved brains revert back to our “reptile brain” or limbic system, buried in the base of our brain, which kicks in and overrides everything else to help us survive. This means that we do not think about what needs to happen; our bodies simply react to protect us. This was very helpful when we were cavemen facing immediate physical danger and we needed to bypass our thinking brains, instead relying on a shortcut to our amygdala and hippocampus (Siegel, 2007). Even now, these shortcuts automatically tell us to avoid things that looked like sticks because they could be life-threatening snakes.
Even before COVID-19, scientists had been studying the difference in high intensity of stress with a definite end (e.g., Sabertooth Tiger) compared to the increased moderate stress we experience that gives us a near constant influx of cortisol from less-than-life-threatening stressors like deadlines and Instagram followers (Sapolsky, 2004). Now, in the current pandemic, with a combination of both a high intensity/life-threatening stressor (COVID-19) and the continued underlying stressors (continuous news cycles and internet access), our limbic system goes into overdrive.
When our limbic system kicks in, it cuts off our pre-frontal cortex, which is how we manage executive functioning (problem solving, planning), thinking, and self-reflection (Siegel, 2007). This is why people hoard toilet paper; they enter into fight, flight, or freeze mode of their amygdala and can no longer access the rational part of their brain to calculate how much toilet paper they actually need for two weeks. Not only do increased stress levels mean we stop thinking – literally – they can create long-term health concerns including depression, ulcers, heart conditions and more (Sapolsky, 2004). However, if we can focus on regulating our bodies and creating safety in our minds, we can reduce not only the health concerns but also build skills to use both in this pandemic and for the rest of our lives.
How to Create Safety
These concepts around safety and regulation are applicable no matter your age, race, gender or economic status. Don’t just implement these for your kids; do it for yourself as well. What we find in therapy is that when parents do well, so do their kids.
1. Make a Routine
While it is hard to have any sense of normalcy right now, creating a routine can help your body feel more at ease. Depending on your situation and ability to control your environment, it could be as little as looking outside when you first get up in the morning or as much as planning and scheduling each activity.
When stressed, our body’s nervous system responds with our sympathetic nervous system and our necessary systems kick into gear: heartbeat, pupils, adrenaline, and the slowing of more dispensable systems such as stomach, bladder, etc. (Hass-Cohen & Carr, 2008). When your body knows what to expect, it can calm itself and our nervous system can function at homeostasis or balance.
– Set a time to get up each day (or each weekday)
– Make chores that need to be completed
– Pick a time to go outside every day
2. Ground Yourself (and Your Kids)
As explained before, stress makes our brains stop working and our bodies kick into overdrive. Taking simple steps to ground ourselves in the moment can reset everything. This helps our brain get back on track. We can notice that the stick is not actually a snake, and even better, we might even be able to notice that there’s a tiny caterpillar crawling on it!
While it might seem like kids should “know better” when having a meltdown, in reality, young children need their adults to help them to ground. They are still learning how to use their prefrontal cortex (i.e., thinking brain) and instead react with their feeling brain, which results in yelling, screaming and irrational thoughts from all ages of children (Siegel & Payne Bryson, 2012). Joining with kids in these moments and redirecting them to something grounding will help their brains get back on track.
– Find objects of every color in the room you are in
– See if you can notice four things you see, three things you hear, two you can feel and one you can smell
– Play “I Spy” (“I spy something blue”/”The clock on the wall”)
– Do a body scan, noting various parts of the body and how they feel
3. Take a Deep Breath
This one can be practiced in a variety of ways, each with their own benefits. Try them out and see what works best for you. Deep breathing switches the nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic, bringing the body back into balance. One way that this is helpful is taking a deep breath before answering someone. This can be when your child asks for the third time, “What’s for dinner?” or your mother asks to FaceTime while the kids are just settling into schoolwork. It can reset your body and give you a second to get back into your thinking brain for a different response.
– Yoga with deep breathing
– Meditation focused on breath
– Each time you wash your hands, take at least one long, deep breath
– Practice counting your breaths (In is one, out is two, in is three, etc.)
4. Control What You Can
This strategy applies to both kids and adults. Even in pre-coronavirus days, I would constantly prompt parents to give their kids small and simple choices. This gives the illusion of control within you, as a parent holding the reins. However, in the age of coronavirus, it is imperative to control what we can, as “trauma robs the victim of a sense of power and control” (Herman, 1997, p. 159). In therapy, this begins with control of the body (i.e., regulation) and then control of the mind (i.e., naming feelings and thoughts) and later moves into what can be controlled in the outside world.
While there is a lot we cannot control right now, there is still much that we can. Focusing on those choices and providing them to ourselves and our kids helps us to regain a sense of mastery of the world around us.
– What to make for dinner
– How clean or messy the house is
– What kind of exercise to engage in
*Note, for smaller children, offer them two choices rather than open ended questions.
In the End
The best analogy I have found for this time involves boats, ships, and vessels, all out at sea, weathering a nasty storm. None of us are close together, as it would be dangerous to have boats in close proximity that could damage each other in the tumult. Each of us has a different boat that causes stress and discord because of our individual situations. Some are in a tiny dinghy all alone, trying to bail out water, taking hard hits with the large waves, and feeling quite queasy with nothing to ground them. Others are attempting to coordinate a fleet of small ships that surround them, keep them in line and afloat, all with less than adequate internet connections. Lastly, there are those that are managing beautiful and majestic tall ships, which normally require an entire crew to support and run, but instead they are left alone to hoist the sails and tend the lines. No situation is the same and all are complicated and difficult. While none of us are in the same boat, we are in the same storm.
Be kind. Take care of yourself and each other until the waters calm.
We will get through this.
Tessa Larson, ATR-BC, LPCC
Art Therapist, Mental Health Professional
Hass-Cohen, N. & Carr R. (2008). Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience. London, UK: Jessica King Pub.
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York, NY: Owl Book/Henry Holt and Co.
Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Siegel, D. & Payne Bryson, T. (2012). The Whole Brain Child. N
May. 18, 2021
Apr. 01, 2021