Trauma and the Body in Pandemic

We’re coming up on a full year of living in the midst of not only a global pandemic, but multiple crises on a national, communal, and personal scale. So today, Dan and Rachael dive into a much-requested topic from our listeners: What is trauma, and what happens to our bodies in the midst of trauma? It’s important to name and honor what you’re experiencing as many of us, if we’re being honest, are not doing well, having hit our “pandemic wall” long ago. You’ll hear our hosts begin to provide language and a framework for how trauma impacts our brains, our physical bodies, and share examples of what this looks like from their own experiences.

It is our hope that by providing these definitions and categories you will be able to name what is happening in your body, be more prepared to engage trauma, and be able to tend to yourself, your family, and your community in this season.

Listener Resources

Episode Transcript

Rachael: Well, Dan, we are here today with a much anticipated and actually much requested conversation around trauma and the body. We have been getting a lot of requests from people to talk more about: What is trauma? What’s the impact of trauma? How do we heal? How do we grow resiliency in the midst of ongoing, persistent, chronic and/or collective trauma? Obviously, we have not shied away from talking about the different ways in which we have been at the mercy of disordered systems of threat and crisis this year. And I think for the most part, if we were honest, we could say we’ve been trying to have all those conversations managing our own relationship and trauma. [laughs] You all might remember a while ago we did a podcast series on not being well. And today it feels like one of those moments of attempting and trying to be faithful to step into naming and bringing categories that could be helpful to people to locate themselves, to have imagination for how to tend in this season, how to tend to your families, how to tend to your community. And it’s also really hard to do when you find yourself in moments where it’s–in our home, we would call it like, turtle! Like, you know, pull into your shell, anchor down, wait out the storm. You know, it’s a language we’ve cultivated with our children, our pre-teens, around ‘I need to turtle for a minute.’

Dan: I can just confess I come to this conversation feeling like, oh, I just don’t know if I’m well. Well, the fact that you’re asking, you don’t know, I’ll say on my behalf, I’m not well. And it is a bit of a reprise of that series we did of how to engage being not well when you’re not well, and I feel like that’s pretty damn close to what, you know, as we even begin talking, I could swear, I think I just did, I could weep, and also, I don’t really want to do this. And yet, I really do want to do this. I mean, just coming back to this and being able to say: All right, what are we doing with the trauma? What are we doing with our lives in the midst of so much? So just for a word or two, how are you? And what’s largely going on for you to say that you’re not sure how well you are doing?

R: For me, it feels more the convergence of what we continue to experience in our larger context and culture. You know, obviously we’re recording, and this will publish in a few days, but yesterday was the, it had been one year since Ahmaud Arbury was murdered. And that started, an uprising and an awareness of tremendous harm. You know, obviously, COVID and the pandemic is, we’re seeing glimmers of a different possibility for many of us who are in the general population, that vaccines will be available really months from now. It’s that feeling of oh, it’s not quite as close as you want it to be. Anyone who’s parents of children right now trying to do virtual school, you know, like as an adult, I’ve hit the pandemic wall. They have. They hit the pandemic wall a while ago. And then I think you know more specifically, there has been a rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans in our country that have come to a head in the past couple of weeks. And the implications for that not just for the current moment, but that they’ve been here for a long season, especially with the pandemic and language that was coming out of the leadership of our country and how that impacts my family, the friendships at The Allender Center. I think for me, it’s that feeling of like, okay, and let’s just add our colleagues and friends in Texas who just went through a brutal, brutal storm that was exacerbated by a failure of infrastructure and leadership to anticipate and prepare for that storm. There’s been loss of life, so I think it’s that feeling of: Of course I have my own personal places where I’m dealing with trauma. I have places where I’m dealing with collective trauma. I have places where people I love are at the mercy of systems that in many ways feel overwhelming and have a long history. And it doesn’t feel like much has shifted with regard to the pandemic and what’s possible. So it’s that kind of overwhelming, you know, when we start talking about trauma, trauma is that threat, It’s a perceived threat to life. We’re going to try in an ongoing conversation to bring some definition. But we’re in a realm that is vast and compounding. There’s, you know, personal trauma. There’s disorder in families, familial trauma. There’s cultural trauma. There’s historical, generational trauma, and when those things feel like they’re all colliding, I know if I’m overwhelmed, then there are people in my midst who are merely surviving. And I think that the weirdness of that and the fear and the sorrow and the rage, and all the ways our bodies are wired to respond in the midst of a trauma response just feels really embodied and really palpable right now.

D: Yeah, it will sound somewhat dismissive when I say amen, but all that. All that. But I would summarize it for me: What’s next? It just seems to be worse and worse and worse, with no mitigating points of rest. And then when you add huge cultural, huge racial, huge economic issues, and then your own particularity! I didn’t go through the storms the way our friends in Texas did, but I felt it and that sense of for them, But also for me, what’s next is just not getting better. And yet we’ve talked before about how even just a little bit of hope seems like it will make things better, but actually it makes it even harder. And for me, adding all that to say that I have a daughter and son in law and two grandchildren who are about to move out of our area. And it’s heartbreaking for me. I have a mentor who shaped my life, Dr Larry Crabb, who’s at least at this moment on the border of death, and the realities of loss, of grief, of–I just can’t take any more. How am I supposed to engage what will seem like such a pathetic issue of, I’ve got to make phone calls with regard to some of my tax issues. And to do that is so overwhelming. I postpone it, and then I don’t get it done, and it mocks me, and I mean, I’m saying it out loud in part to say, I’ve got to do that when we finish. Yet, I can do the podcast. But there’s so many other little things that seem to be almost insurmountable, the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. So, in not doing well because of all that you put words to, and then the personal realities– I want to go back to say, we’ve got to name what’s happening in trauma to be at least slightly better prepared to engage it as well as we can versus mere surviving, which actually ends up setting you up for doing the very opposite, of going under, because you have not tended particularly to your body in the way that you were meant to. So let’s just go back to that key phrase. Trauma is where initially, there’s a threat to your body, to your life, to your identity, to something of your perceived safety. And it’s crucial for us each to have that language to know we’ve been living under a profound threat for a long time, and there are communities that have been living under a far more unmitigated, traumatic chronic threat. As you said, many people of color live in a world in which there is unmitigated, constant threat. But the reality is we’re all– whether it’s sudden trauma or long-term trauma– it literally wears our system down. And that leaves us really with the reality that when we’ve got a perceived threat but have some sense of control or power influence, the trauma is never felt quite as severely as when we feel powerless or in that sense of we don’t have the ability to shape or control the direction that a person is taking, a system is taking, so not just a threat to our life, our identity, to our body, to our relationships, but when that’s added to: I don’t feel like I can handle this. There’s nothing I can do to change this. That’s when trauma becomes even more intense. That is a deep sense of powerlessness. And then third, when we feel that kind of powerlessness, one of the clear senses of that is we feel flooded, overwhelmed? I’d even go further, to say a kind of desperation that gives us generally, for most of us, a sense of shame. I feel overwhelmed and a shame that I can’t do what I’ve done to get out of the situation or the bind that I’m in, which ends up creating a deeper sense of isolation. So let me, let me say it again: when we feel threatened and powerless, and then overwhelmed or flooded, it naturally fragments us. Literally, our left and right hemispheres of our brains are not working. Our ability to operate with executive functioning and decision making don’t work. And in the midst of feeling powerless, the inevitable reality is our body becomes numb. We don’t have the same level of awareness of our body of what our heart wants and desires. We go numb, and that’s where the last phase is, in the midst of all that, the tragedy is more often than not, we isolate. And as a result, we disconnect from the very social realm that could be most helpful in helping us come back. Because in that sense of shame, there’s so much proclivity to accuse ourselves or be susceptible to accusation or to find fault or to blame ourselves. So again, it’s just a freaking mess! When you begin to put all that as the reality of just one trauma, let alone what we’ve been beginning to talk about is individual, familial, relational, spiritual, systemic, cultural trauma, no wonder we’re a mess.

R: Yeah, it’s like, ugh, I just feel the agony of that. And I think I would say to those of you who are listening, you know, Dan and I talked about this before we started. For some people, you are in the midst of where it’s too much right now to even try to put language to it and in some ways the fragmentation is a mercy. And we say that like a time limited mercy, right? It’s not meant to be the end all be all answer. But we are aware this podcast won’t be, not everyone is going to be at the place where they’re ready for the language. So we do hope for those of you who are just like too much today! I’m gonna flag this. I’ll come back to it another day when I have maybe a slightly different margin. And for others of you, you do find that you have some margin, but you don’t, maybe, you know, you’re experiencing trauma in a new way that maybe you’ve been able to escape with some of these coping mechanisms, but you find you don’t have the same capacity to just kind of power through and overcome. And I think our hope is to give you some language and a framework to understand what’s happening, and to have some tools to both advocate for yourself. But I would also say, to have imagination for how to offer care to those in your midst. Because one of the things I think will be really important for us to keep coming back to is, this is why we belong to each other. Why we, especially as Christians, talk about this union in the spirit that we have, because this is a season where we need each other in ways that we’ve maybe been able to get by, not all the time, but, you know, maybe in general we’ve been able to get by without needing each other. For some of us. And so our hope is to provide not only in context for what’s happening for you, but what’s happening for those who love? What’s happening for people you’re working with? What’s happening in a larger way, as you’re interacting with people that you might be able to extend more grace, more understanding, and offer care for people in ways that might be just more effective in this particular season.

D: There’s something about knowing that we universally have some very common realities in the midst of trauma. Yeah, we’re all different, and the differences are profound in terms of how we each engage the reality of trauma. But in the middle of trauma, our bodies have a certain commonality– again, with differences, but a commonality– and that’s what we’re inviting you to begin to go: What you’re going through is heartbreaking, difficult, but it’s also normal when you’re in the middle of trauma. And so we want to be able to capture a kind of, well, threat with powerlessness, with being flooded. What’s going to happen that you need to be aware of before, to some degree during, but as well after the intensity of that trauma has dissipated at least to some degree? Because we need to care for one another. And we need to care for our bodies in the middle of trauma. So, let’s jump in. If that’s the nature of trauma, what do you find to be most true for you, Rachel, when you’re in the middle of trauma with regard to what happens to your body?

R: I think in this particular season, the fragmentation piece is what feels most palpable. And I think it would be helpful, you know, when I say fragmentation, I know exactly what I’m talking about. I know for many, it’s like, well, what does that mean? And you know, Dan, I’ll probably let you talk a little bit more about the brain and our brain-body connection, but for me, it’s– I’ll just give examples. I’m trying to communicate something, and I get two words into the sentence. but I can’t find the third word. It’s like I can see the thing I would say, you know? ‘Hey, Michael, can you grab the . . .’ I can see it in my brain box, but I can’t figure out what the word is for that thing. I’m wanting to request that he might help me acquire it. And I feel like it’s happening almost every sentence I can get the first two words of the sentence, but I can’t actually articulate the final, most important word, so this breakdown of language and not just a breakdown of language, but that sense of my brain is fuzzy. I feel like I’m wading through water. I’m not as able to, you know, I go to the refrigerator. I’m standing in front of the refrigerator. I can’t remember what I came to the refrigerator to get. I’m not as able to multitask as in other seasons. I might be like–, not able to multitask. Let’s just be clear. There is no multitasking.

D: [laughs] I’m sorry. That’s just hilarious. Well, and again, I don’t want to get too tedious or boring here, but we have to understand we have an autonomic nervous system that’s made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. And the sympathetic is what is sort of the go, the movement, the energy, and the parasympathetic is the slow down, the ability to rest, and the sympathetic system is what really shapes our ability to do what generally would be called fight or flight. And when we are in trauma, our brain, through our limbic system, particularly our amygdala and through our hypothalamus, is able to make assessments about danger. And in that danger, our body is flooded, truly flooded with epinephrine or cortisol or stress biochemicals, sugar. literally. Our body gives us rushes of sugar to be able to move quickly. Well, the dilemma is: we’re meant to have these bursts of intensity, but then to return to rest. Well, if you’re in unchanging, unmitigated trauma like we’ve been in for a year, universally across the world, and then add 100 other forms of that, our bodies never have a chance to really come down to rest. And our body is meant to have this notion of homeostasis, balance, the ability to go and rest. Well, what happens is that homeostasis shifts to what’s called a low stasis, and that is we get ramped up and we never really come down. Well, we can adapt for a long period of time, but part of the fragmentation is our body is literally being torn to pieces. I mean, our body is experiencing a literal fragmentation because you’re not able to have balance and rest. So, when you add that to, again, this will just sound too highfalutin. But the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex that holds our ability to see how the present relates to the past, when we’re in trauma, we lose a capacity to have time balance. So when you gave those examples, what I would say is I’m not remembering when Becky asked me to get something from the garage and I make a movement to the garage and 5 to 20 seconds later, I’m walking into the garage going, what am I doing here? And I walked back in and Becky goes, did you get the . . .? The what? It’s happening so frequently that at one point she said, are you worried about dementia? And it’s like, no, I’m actually aware of the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. Thank goodness I know that language because I don’t think I’m moving toward dementia at my age, but more likely the fragmentation is our body is suffering levels of contortion, of violence, that we were never meant to suffer the way we are.

R: Yeah. [breathes a deep sigh]

D: That feels so important to sigh and will come to this later in our second round of this podcast. But the ability to sigh, are you aware that just literally being able to go oh, is activating or deactivating is a better word, your sympathetic system. So sighing, letting your shoulders come up and dropping them things that we’re going to go, are you kidding? This is the level of help you’re going to be offering? And the answer is, if we don’t tend to our body and how God made us to find at least a bit more rest, then our bodies are going to be in this reserve depletion to a point where we literally have very little left to function.

R: And I think another way that our bodies respond to trauma when you talk about powerlessness, that lack of control is also to freeze and to numb and to disassociate. And, again, I think all of us could probably attest, we’re in deeper levels of numbness. So, like the things that would typically work to bring dissociation don’t work anymore. Like maybe like you find, oh, you used to be able to just watch TV. But you find you need to be on TV and your phone and like there’s a sense of like, again, I hope you hear there’s not. At least I’ll speak for myself. No judgment that that’s the way our bodies are responding. It’s an attempt to to get away from the allostatic load and the flooding and to escape. I mean, being at the mercy of something you feel you have no control over is a kind of brutality that again, I would say, is not how our bodies were created or what we’re meant for. And there is a kind of forced resiliency that comes, that adjustment, which over time can have a very detrimental impact on us. In the midst of it’s just that feeling of like there’s no help, there is no justice, and you know, we’re going to talk more in our next podcast about what are some tools, really simple tools. And the simple tools are going to feel, they are going to bring almost that feeling of like, are you kidding me? That’s what you’re going to offer? And I think one thing I would just name and hold is like, well, it’s not all the work because so much of the work is us being and stepping into being the people were called to be to attend to some of these disordered systems. And yet how do we tend? How do we tend there if we actually aren’t doing some of the work to tend here? And it’s kind of like the chicken and the egg, because you actually need both movements. So it’s where as Christians, we have to have a lot of faith that the spirit is moving at all the levels, not just in our bodies but to deny ourselves a capacity to tend. That feels actually like more cruelty and like joining the disordered systems as a form of punishment. So that numbness that comes when you’re needing to not be so present to the powerlessness because it’s too terrifying. And Dan, already named isolation that sense of and it’s such a strange thing to talk about isolation, we’ve said this so many times in a season where you know, I know not everybody is practicing this, I know there are places where people have just kind of moved on, like, you know, it doesn’t matter. But for many of us still in social distancing practices, it’s a strange thing to talk about isolation when it feels like, well, we’re kind of being forced to be isolated right now. You know, it’s not just an isolation from other people. I think it’s also an isolation, even from yourself,

D: Oh so well said yeah, if we go back to that notion of look, we are borrowing from our body energy just to function and we’re in debt and we’re getting in greater debt and greater debt, that level of reserve being lost because I still have to function. I still have to go to work. I still have to attend to my world, and yet the capacity to do so seems to be diminishing. Again, too dramatic to say minute by minute, but it’s pretty much day, week, month to month. What I’m doing today, compared to what I was able to do six months ago, is pretty dramatically different. So just having language to not accuse myself of being stupid, lazy, incompetent because I can’t remember what I was supposed to go to the garage for, you know, we’ve said this so often it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance. Well, if I can’t be kind In the midst of my fragmentation to the level of exhaustion, to the lack of reserves to the reality that, look, executive functioning, the ability to just make decisions is drastically affected because of this fragmentation, our ability to think in the middle of trauma is deeply compromised. So, if I don’t have language for that, I’m going to tend to either push and power up, therefore take money that’s not in my reserve, therefore, going into even greater debt or worse, I’m going to not just take what I don’t have, I’m going to bring my judgment, which, actually strangely brings new energy for a very short period. Just like eating a lot of sugar. Like drinking, eating chocolate. Yeah, in the middle of trauma, it ramps you up, but it’s going to drop you fast and therefore leave you even in one sense, in more debt than before. So, I’ve noticed my sleep, my eating my drinking. Look, we are in a dopamine-driven period right now because that’s what gets us enough energy to function. And yet you were putting it so well in terms of oxytocin, our bonding biochemical is incredibly depleted because we’re not physically together in the way that we were SO when we’ve got this cortisol intensity, dopamine driven up and down, up and down. I’ll go back to what we began with. I’m a mess. How are you? Okay,

R: Turtle? Yeah, and I think where we hope to go in our next podcast is to talk really tangible and to kind of really bring it down. It’s not going to feel sufficient, but it’s a necessary beginning. And we also have colleagues who are going to be hosting a one day conference in April to go even more in-depth and provide some embodied practices on trauma and the body—Abby Wong Heffter and Jenny McGrath—and we’ll have more insight about that as well. So we know this is going to need to be an ongoing conversation. We are committed to that, we do not bring this to bring despair, more to help you locate and especially in Christian contexts when some of these things manifest in ways that we’ve only known how to talk about them with regard to sin, we’re also trying to provide a framework in a language for your body to understand. Like Dan said, that judgment, accusation, and telling yourself just to stop is not going to be sufficient. So we’ve got to find some other pathways to tend, and that will be our hope as we’re with you again.

D: And if we can invite you even before you join us next week just to consider again, what does it mean to be kind when you can’t remember what you were going to the garage for? When you can’t find the word that you want to speak, what would it mean for you to even begin now to say, what do I do to stand against judgment and open up my heart to what I need most in the midst of trauma? And that’s kindness.