Supporting one another in times of traumatic events
By Rev. Diane Strickland
The moment when a crisis becomes “real” may be different for each one of us. During our current pandemic that might have happened in a grocery store aisle with empty shelves, or in a sudden realization that a loved one is out of the country, or when picking up a message telling you not to come to work. As time passes with no relief, anxiety builds and our fears increase. But there is some relief you can give yourself even as the crisis continues and there are simple ways to support others.
Everyone’s response to a traumatic event is unique
A pandemic creates a context for trauma that will elicit different reactions. That means some people you don’t expect to be seriously affected may, in fact, struggle with coming to terms with facts, procedures, and implications. That may even be you.
While all aspects of the pandemic are important, some may seem more obviously critical than others. But our anxiety may choose to gather around any of them as a core stressor. This is because our brains work differently in crisis. Our cognitive function does not necessarily dominate brain function. Instead, our alarm systems working out the limbic system and the amygdala may launch a takeover. So, the thing that triggers that alarm system is not necessarily the most critically important thing. And the reasons we are triggered by that may not always be apparent or shared. But they are real.
So, some people rant about leadership, others fall apart at the grocery store, and still others are up all night worrying their loved one home. A few will remain calm through all of it. The point here is that we are all different and our response to trauma is unique. We may find others with a similar response, but we can’t expect it from others. There are many known and unknown factors that create our responses and as a crisis goes on, our responses may change on a dime. Be kind with yourself and be kind with others.
We also may find emotions and behaviours of others that catch us off guard. It is unhelpful, however, to try and argue people into being calmer, “correct” them about what’s stressing them, or to berate them. We are who we are. Our psychological wiring can be complex. Most people are doing the best they can with the resources they have. In a crisis, self-awareness can be both scarce and in demand. Self-awareness can come at a premium in a crisis. Don’t think you have to answer people’s questions or solve their identified problem if you can’t, or even respond on topic if it doesn’t feel helpful. There is no value in escalating some discussions.
A few low-key responses to others to help harness calm might be useful:
• We are going to have to keep going and look out for each other.
• You may be on to something there. And I wish you the best.
• I’m anxious about a lot of things too. It going to take time to sort this out.
• It’s tough all right. And it’s going to need to best out of all of us.
• These are challenging times. I think about my parent and grandparents and how they just kept going. And I think that’s what they want me to do.
• You have a lot to carry right now. May you find the strength to keep going.
• It’s very hard right now. It will get better. But not for a while. Let’s push forward as best we can.
• That’s a good point. I’ll be thinking about that, too. You take care.
Keep that list by you when chatting with people electronically. Most of all, don’t worry if your response is different from someone else. Support that person when they need it with affirming and encouraging presence (if possible) and words. Ask for the same when it’s your turn to need it. If you have concerns about anyone’s well-being, use local service agencies you may have for assistance or call police or RCMP and ask for a wellness check. If anyone threatens to harm themselves or others, do not set that aside. Call police or RCMP and report it.
In my work and ministry I see glimpses of the “why” of God believing in us. We will get there—perhaps diminished in some ways and more in others. This experience is changing us, but we can do this. I’ve seen us do it. And we are doing it right now. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Diane Strickland is a Certified Community and Workplace Traumatologist, Compassion Fatigue Therapist, and a Critical Incident Responder for a national health service provider. Diane provided onsite support through The United Church of Canada following two of our country’s largest natural disasters — in High River, AB after the 2013 floods and in Fort MacMurray, AB after the 2016 Wildfires. She has a private practice for trauma-informed support and ministry. Permission granted to reproduce and distribute as is helpful, with the above author paragraph included. Thank you.