How We Can Heal from the Pandemic Emotional Wounds.
We are as wired for survival, as we are wired for healing.
Think about a cut on your skin and the way it heals. We can apply the same simile to many other functions of our system — including the emotional one. We all have witnessed the miracle of skin regeneration; when the skin is injured, our brain sets an automatic series of steps into motion in order to repair the injured tissues. It’s often referred to as “cascade of healing” (Clark & Henson, 1996).
If the healing of the wound goes well, the bleeding will stop, the tissue will close, new tissue will develop, and it will become strong and flexible. There may be a scar, but maybe nothing else will be left of the cut. If it doesn’t go well, an infection can develop, an ulcer can appear, or it can leave mechanical damage — to mention just a few of the consequences.
As I explained in other posts, when we are in danger, the brain sets into motion an automatic series of mechanisms in order to maintain the person alive. It’s sometimes called “defense cascade” (Kozlowska et al., 2015) because of the cascade of hormones and the succession of changes in the system.
If the defense cascade does a good job, we will feel safe and in control of our lives at the end of the process, and the emotions experienced during the threat will dissipate; scars will be present, in the way of undesirable memories, but nothing too permanent will occur. If it doesn’t go well, many emotional disturbances can occur — like depression and anxiety, — the perception of danger will stay, and a psychological disorder — like trauma — may develop.
The pandemic is causing us to feel like we are in danger because most people are scared of losing something. Many emotional disturbances are materializing from that fear. Some people can’t contain their anger while others are falling into despair. The same way we need antibiotics and some ointments to help the tissue heal after a cut, we need an antidote to help our psyche to bounce back to normal even before this chaos ends.
Our brain — and our whole system — needs internal equilibrium to operate optimally. The brain doesn’t like to be “stressed” or forced to perform extra tasks — like those during the defense cascade — because that means performing countless changes to its normal functioning that create disarray. Our brain is looking for the opportunity to heal and go back to normal (or optimal), and if we facilitate it, it will take it. When we hear concepts like the “negative bias” we may believe that the body prefers to stay in a negative cycle. It doesn’t. The negative bias is a primitive tendency to remember the negative as prevention of it occurring again, but the brain keeps looking for an extra push to get out of that negativity. Listening to the message of the emotions is that push.
Emotions are a phenomenon designed to help us heal. Not the contrary.
All emotions are at service to the system if we listen to the message they carry as soon as the message appears. Emotions are energy moving (e-motion) through our body to indicate that something is happening and needs attention. If we feel angry, that means that the body/mind connection is indicating to us that we need to protect ourselves from abuse, an attack, unfairness, etc. If we feel envy, the movement is indicating that we may need to make improvements to avoid staying behind expectations. If we experience fear, it may be an indication that we are in danger and need to find protection. And so on.
All emotions have a positive side if we listen to them and learn to follow their message in a timely manner. Emotions go out of control, or it may be better to say emotions take control, when we disregard the message and let them rule the autonomic responses on their own, without our active and mindful participation.
That mindful participation is the antidote, or for the purpose of this article, the vaccine.
The vaccine that we need right now is that opportunity that our brain needs to start working in stopping the bleeding and closing the wound. We need to avoid opening the cut more, or allowing debris to get into it. The pandemic is the wound, fear is the bleeding, and the chain of emotions is the pain of having been injured. The pain is telling us that the wound can get infected and also, that there is a disruption on its natural course. So, how do we stop the bleeding?
I’m not going to give a long list of chores. I’m going to propose one that works like vaccines do. Vaccines stimulate the production of antibodies and provide immunity against one or several diseases (Oxford). Let’s make our emotional “antibodies” to be the awareness of our emotions, and the diseases to be the psychological disorders we are going to develop immunity against, like trauma, and emotional disturbances like anxiety or depression.
Ways to participate in creating the healing:
Learn to listen to your emotions.
Accept that you are experiencing emotions and changes in your mood. It’s only human, and not addressing them is what makes them grow uncontrollably.
Name your emotions. You can start by increasing your emotional vocabulary. Sometimes having a word that better explains what you are experiencing facilitates the understanding of it.
Create distance between your actions and your emotions. Don’t act out what you are experiencing. Just take a pause and observe it. If more than one emotion is happening, try to separate them and work with each one at a time.
Notice your emotional state. Is this a new emotion, or does it feel old?
Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Is there a particular part of your body having more tension than normal? Are you experiencing sensations that you normally don’t? Where? What type? How strong?
Listen to their message. What are these emotions telling me? If I assume that this experience is trying to help me, what would it be saying?
Write down what you learned about these emotions.
Keep listening to your emotions. You are getting vaccinated.