Pandemic Progress – Healing the Collective Wound

“Healing is not an overnight process; it is a daily cleansing of pain, it is a daily healing of your life.” ~ Leon Brown

I used to bide my time in quarantine wondering what life would be like when the pandemic was over. And though it’s not over, and in many regions, it is far from over, here in the United States there are glimmers of us coming out the other side. But what are we evolving into? It is becoming increasingly clear that we are not and will not ever go back to life as we knew it. Not completely.

As much as I like to imagine us all tiptoeing out of hiding like the Munchkins, with Glenda singing “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” followed by a happy chorus of “Ding Dong the pandemic is dead!” I know it’s going to be a lot messier and slower than that.

We have all been through a collective trauma, and trauma requires healing. Not healing on the back burner, but daily, active healing on the front burner. And it will not happen overnight. In her book, “The New Normal,” (highly recommend!) Dr. Jennifer Ashton compares the pandemic to an asteroid hitting Earth. That’s a good analogy. It’s a global catastrophe. It happened. It changed everything. And recovery from the fear, the monumental grief, and the loss of trust in the stability of life is something we will be healing from for a very long time.

Remember? Remember how we were just going along, living our lives, and then we heard rumors about a virus. “Oh, that’s happened before. They’ll get a handle on it, they always do.” And then, boom! Everything is closed. You must stay home. Wear a mask. Wear gloves. Wipe everything down. Wait, people are dying? How many? Oh my God. Oh my God.

And then the months of waiting, and surges, and horrific strains on our medical professionals, and farmworkers, and grocery store employees. Unbelievable images on the news, funerals on zoom if at all, loved ones sick and dying – alone.

And now here we are looking ahead to literally taking some deep breaths without masks. Getting vaccinated – moving forward. But where is forward? Where will these changes take us? Who will we be on the other side? Figuring out where we will end up depends on the care we take as we emerge.

“I think it’s important to realize that you can miss something, but not want it back.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Healing from the pandemic will be like healing any trauma. It will not be linear. It will be circular, up and down, two steps forward, three steps back. Slowly, slowly, trusting the world again. In our favor is the fact that we have survived thus far. We bring all that we have learned from the pandemic with us. We bring the gratitude, the healthier prioritizing, the appreciation of leisure and nature, the perfect simplicity of connecting with a friend, perhaps the self-knowledge we have gained.

As we move forward, we probably feel we can’t trust the future, but we know we can trust our own resilience. Look at what we have been through! Don’t underestimate it. Day to day it can feel sort of okay, but take a moment to really look at where we’ve been, what has been lost, and what has changed. Our resilience is stronger than ever. Our ability, individually and as a society, to adapt and change has never been challenged so tangibly in our lifetime. We have risen to the call. We have helped neighbors, worked food banks, stayed connected, grieved with each other, and cried and held each other up. We have prayed like never before.

We have also learned who and what we can trust in outside of ourselves, and this alone could be vastly different than before the pandemic. These are not light lessons. These are life lessons, deep and long-lasting, and we couldn’t have come to them any other way.

We have truly formed new neural pathways in our brains by surviving this era. Pathways that help us heal trauma, that help us tolerate change and adapt to it, and that will help us achieve our new normal.

“All of Western medicine is built on getting rid of pain, which is not the same as healing. Healing is actually the capacity to hold pain.” ~ Gabor Matè

The healing will be slow. It will take time to learn to trust being with others again. We will definitely tiptoe into this world, not like Munchkins, but like the wounded beings we are, cautious but oh, so hopeful! Although we won’t return to exactly the way things were before, we have the opportunity to build back differently, perhaps more carefully and more thoughtfully than ever before. I’m not ready to hold hands for this, but I will walk beside you.

You are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

5/14/21

Making Friends with the Night

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“In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me                                                           dwell in safety.”  ~ Psalm 4:8 .                         

This idea came to me a few weeks ago – making friends with the night. It’s something I still struggle with from time to time. I still have very vivid memories of fearing the night, the dark, and sleep; all of these fears when my trauma was fresh. How could I sleep again when sleep had left me vulnerable and the night had brought danger? It took a long time before I could truly sleep, and I spent almost a year feeling sleep-deprived and not able to function well during the day.

I saw a concert film last night, “Concert for George.” It was a tribute concert for George Harrison made in 2002. The lyrics to one of his songs struck me, as it described the feeling trauma survivors have about sleep:

“Watch out now, take care

Beware of the thoughts that linger

Winding up inside your head

The hopelessness around you

In the dead of the night.” ~ from “Beware of Darkness”

This verse so poetically describes the post-trauma brain trying to find sleep. One fearful thought quickly multiplies, spiraling into a cyclone of random thoughts and images, leading to that hopelessness that feeds our tendency to isolate. But we find our release (relief?) in the first line – “Watch out now, take care.” That is the key. The way out is to be ever-vigilant with our thoughts, and ask for help when we need it. We often also need to physically be certain of our safety, so our logical mind can help our emotional mind get through. This is a start to making friends with the night.

Initially, being in control of our thoughts is almost impossible. Once the shock begins to wear off, our brains go into hyper-drive trying to make sense of what happened. We usually have no frame of reference, so the fearful thoughts we try to plug into previous memories and logic are finding no home. They run amuck in our brain until we form new synapses, a new filing system, and ultimately new coping skills for what we have experienced. This is a time for good therapy to help you frame your experience in a way that will be helpful to you.

But alone, at night, it’s just you and your fearful brain. There are many tools to help us get control of our thoughts. Just as with any healing tool, we have to experiment to see what works for us. And no one thing will work every time! These are tools I have used: prayer, distraction (read, read, read), and detach and replace. Often, if I just start praying, especially if I’m praying for a long list of others, my fearful brain will turn off, and my mind enters a more contented space, more connected with the Divine than with this world. Sometimes I have to just distract myself with reading until my brain is too tired to make me crazy. And sometimes, I practice detach and replace. It’s kind of like catch and release in fishing. I observe the fearful thought as though it’s not part of me (detach), then replace it with a different thought. So it goes something like this:

Fear thought: I’ve been harmed. It could happen again. What was that noise?

Detaching thought: Hm. That’s interesting that you’re thinking about that.

Replacing thought: I’m a beloved child of God.

Basically, you are disarming a bully, it just happens to live in your brain and come out at night. If you are still deep in the healing process, I encourage you to also explore EFT (tapping) as a tool to help you get to sleep. 

It can be difficult to use affirmations and trust in God and tell yourself you are safe, when you have very vivid memories of not being safe. But the alternative is to live IN fear instead of IN SPITE of it. If we remain frozen and paralyzed by it, then the fear wins, the trauma wins, and our life is lessened by it.

“Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending – to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how the story ends.”                          ~ Brene Brown

We must keep trying to make friends with the night, so we are rested warriors and we can choose how our story ends. Try not to be afraid of the dark (and I will too), God is there as surely as God is in the light, encompassing our fear with the mighty power of Divine Love.

You are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

2/26/2018

This is Your Brain on God

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“We expand what we focus on.” ~ Wayne Dyer

Healing trauma can feel so overwhelming. Good days and bad. Doing the work but not feeling better when we want to. Annoying friends and bloggers telling us to pray. Pray about it. What a bunch of mumbo-jumbo!

It’s not just mumbo-jumbo. Science is now proving that not only does trauma significantly change the brain, but so do prayer and meditation. New research is constantly studying the neuroplasticity of the brain, the ability of the adult brain to change and adapt.

Without getting too technical about parts of the brain, etc. suffice it to say that trauma definitely affects brain function. Brain researcher Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, says this; “It is no use telling them to ‘get over’ it because PTSD fundamentally changes the brain’s structure and alters its functionalities.” In fact, new research in imaging is allowing the diagnosis of PTSD with PET scans, because the changes in the brain are indeed observable.

If you are a trauma survivor, you are probably already aware of this. Your thinking, reactions, and processing of information is different. Your brain has been rewired to some form of protection mode, and God knows we need this. However, functioning long term in this mode is unhelpful and unhealthy.

As science continues to expand in its understanding of the effect of trauma on the brain, so will the treatments available. According to Alexander Neumeister, MD who researches the brain and PTSD, “People with cancer have a variety of different treatment options available based on the type of cancer that they have. We aim to do the same thing in psychiatry. We’re deconstructing PTSD symptoms, linking them to different brain dysfunction, and then developing treatments that target those symptoms.”

There is so much hope on the horizon for the treatment of trauma. But there is also new evidence that we can do simple daily actions that will help our brains recover.

This is where the mumbo-jumbo comes in. God. Yes, focusing on the Divine, prayer, and meditation, will connect new synapses in your brain that will heal, or at least diminish the strength of the changes trauma has created. And science is proving it.

“Be silent, only the hand of God can remove the burdens of your heart.” ~ Rumi

Richard Davidson, PhD, at the University of Wisconsin, claims we can change the brain with training and practice. He’s proven that the thinking brain connects to the emotional brain, so our thoughts can indeed influence our feelings and change how we react to certain stimuli. Quieting our thoughts also has a profound impact. In one study on people meditating for 30 minutes a day Davidson reported, “Just two month’s practice among rank amateurs led to a systematic change in both the brain as well as the immune system in more positive directions.”

Dr. Andrew Newberg, author of “How God Changes Your Brain” says prayer can absolutely heal. His new field, called neurotheology, studies the effect of religious and spiritual experiences on the brain. He has scanned the brains of Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns. He found that in deep meditation or prayer, the part of our brains engaged in focus light up, while the part engaged in organizing sensory information goes dark. When this part, the parietal lobes calm down, our sense of self diminishes (in a good way) as we feel more oneness.

We’re fascinated by the words, but where we meet is in the silence behind them.” ~ Ram Dass

For people with faith, this research is not a surprise so much as a validation of what we already feel. Focusing on the Divine, prayer, and meditation lead us to feel more whole and healed. For people without faith, this is wonderful scientific evidence that meditation and mindfulness can truly help heal the brain that has suffered trauma. Focusing on the breath, closing your eyes, trying to empty your mind each day will speed your healing.

Whatever our beliefs, knowing that our brains are plastic and capable of change brings hope. Knowing that God and prayer truly do change the wiring of our brain means that we have the tools to begin and extend our healing any time, anywhere.

Knowing that science and the Divine are working together for our benefit is astonishing.

You are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

October 5, 2016

Note: I do not suggest that spirituality alone can heal trauma or PTSD. I merely suggest that restoring your faith, and finding a spiritual practice, can enhance effective therapy and assist in post-traumatic growth.