“The symbol in Chinese for crisis is made up of two ideographs: one means danger, the other means opportunity. This symbol is a reminder that we can choose to turn a crisis into an opportunity or into a negative experience.”
~ Virginia Satir
In Chinese characters, the word crisis looks like this “危機”. There are two characters, danger and opportunity. So, a crisis is a dangerous opportunity.
Traditional Chinese is my native language, and I am familiar with this concept. I often wondered whether this is the reason I always feel intrigued by this philosophy: crisis can be a dangerous situation, but it also can be an opportunity.
At the end of the 3rd week after the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping through Massachusetts, I asked myself: what do I want to see myself at the end of this pandemic?
In the first three weeks, I went from shocking to accept my new life. It reminded me of the Merrimack Vally gas explosion situation, except this is a bigger, more extended, and much more unpredictable situation. I realized that the stress reactions my clients and I are experiencing might have some connections to the prior personal traumatic experiences. In this article, I wanted to talk more about these stress reactions. In the meantime, if you are reading this article, I would like you to share this journey with me with this question in your mind: “What do you want to see yourself coming out on the other side at the end of this pandemic if this crisis in the human life is an opportunity for you?”
Stress reaction to the Dangerous Crisis
When the crisis strikes, there are generally two responses, fight or flight, either one, people want to ensure their survival is guaranteed.
Many people’s first responses are to fight for survival is making sure their safety and security. I remembered hearing people talking about going to the grocery store to stuck up the supplies. It baffles me until I went to the grocery store on the following day and saw the empty self that I have a deeper understanding of the fighting-in-action.
Some other people’s responses are to “flee,” which often sounds like this: “It’s no big deal.”, or “Oh, people are making a bigger deal than it needed to be.” During the first week of social distancing, I heard a lot of people saying: “My kids are bored, and I just let them go outside. It’s no big deal. What can happen?”
When stress reaction prolongs to more than a week, I started to notice the patterns of the stress responses. I remembered sharing with my friends: “I am apprehensive that the depression and anxiety are going to get to some of my clients before the virus gets to them.”
By the 2nd week, some people started to voice their anxiety, and by the third weeks, many people began to voices these feelings:
“When is this going to be over?”
“How long is this going to be?”
The sense of unpredictability is a threat to our nervous system because it made us feel out of control. Unable to predict the future raised anxiety and made us feel a lack of control.
Do you remember the first step when an infant going from crawling to walking? An infant has to steady the body before they can take their first walk. Once they can walk, the world becomes so much more significant because they can explore any place with their feet faster and further. However, the first step is to ground yourself. As humans, we need to feel grounded and to have a sense of control to explore the world. Human growth depends on a sense of control and stability.
The unpredictability about when life will return to the way it used to be can bring out feelings of powerlessness and a sense of lack control, ultimately leading to anxiety.
“I can’t go to the grocery store whenever I want.”
“I can’t go to the restaurant at the end of the hard-working week.”
“I just wish that I can go to my friend’s house even when we don’t go out for dinner or something.”
I shared with my clients that I don’t go to the restaurant often, and I don’t go to the grocery store every single day. However, It was my choice whether I want to go and when I want to go. The social distancing rules and the shutting down of the essential business are difficult to adjust because the sense of control and choice are taken away from us. We have no power and authority to choose when and how to do or not to do something.
A threat to the survival
“I can’t see the virus, but I know they are all over the place.”
“Everyone’s symptoms is different. Some people seem to be fine, but others died!”
The unpredictability of the virus and the symptoms of the COVID-19 caused anxiety because of the threat to survival. The human eyes cannot see the virus. Someone can be a carrier but asymptomatic. Someone can be infected by the virus but no symptoms until 10-14 days later. The uncertainty is a threat to the ability for self-protection, which is a treat to survival.
And, do I need to say more when a person feels there is a threat to survival? We become fearful and panic.
“I can’t do the things I normally do.”
“I can’t feel safe in my surroundings.”
Unpredictability, inflexibility, and threat to survival are the most commonly heard concerns in the last few weeks since the pandemic breaks out. I observed myself, and my clients talked about these three common themes that bring out the powerless, lack of control, fear, and anxiety.
Also, all of these feelings bring out a sense of loss. We lost our sense of control, normality, and connection.
When the stress reaction meets the trauma history…….
I went through my adjustment in the first three weeks after the essential business shutting down. I observed myself, and my clients went through their loss of control, normality, fear, powerlessness, and anxiety.
In the meantime, I am trying to adjust to the changes to continue to support my clients.
One morning, during the third week after the essential business shutting down, I was meditating after running and yoga, the same as usual, nothing unusual. Suddenly, I broke down, starting to cry. I was surprised by my reaction. My first thought was: “Am I this stressed out that I didn’t know?”
After I calmed down from crying, I suddenly realized that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time I experienced an epidemic like this. In 2003, in Taiwan, we (meaning all the Taiwanese) also experienced SARS. Many doctors and nurses lost their lives during that pandemic. Taiwan learned a hard lesson from that pandemic. The COVID-19 epidemic has been controlled well in Taiwan since January.
In 2003, I also lost my father unexpectedly. He didn’t die because of SARS. He simply didn’t wake up from his sleep one morning. I still remembered the flight home from LA to Taiwan. I was crying with the masks on. It was the feeling of out of control, unpredictability, and a huge sense of loss.
I didn’t know what my future would be like without my father around. It was 2003, and I remembered this like it was yesterday.
When I sat on my yoga mate meditating, it was not only the stress from the past three weeks that made me cry but also the loss I experienced in my personal history during another SARS pandemic that made me cry.
It made me realize that idea of “We are all in this together” is only valid to a certain degree. The difficulties of adjusting to this social distancing and business shutting down can be very personal and can bring up emotions that connected to personal history.
A crisis is an opportunity
After six weeks of the pandemic, how have you been coping?
Following that morning, after I breaking down crying, I have a better understanding of the work I have to do with my clients. My work with my clients is not just coping with the unavoidable and uncontrollable of the COVID-19 pandemic. My work is also about healing from the past traumatic experiences that surfaced because of the epidemic. By doing so, we are not just passively coping with the unavoidable COVID-19 pandemic but also actively healing from past trauma.
Here are some questions to ask yourself?
1. Which aspects of the social distancing and business shutting down is hard for you?
2. Write down the details of how hard it has been for you. Is there a specific example? In that example, you are thinking in your head right now, what are the emotions you feel? What are the physical sensations when you think those emotions? What are the thoughts you experienced in your head when you feel the feelings in your body?
3. Ask yourself: is this experience familiar? When have I experienced this before?
4. If the answer is yes, what was that prior experience? Write down the details of how hard it was for you in those prior experiences.
5. Hold yourself in this space and write a letter to yourself in prior experiences. Tell your former self your understanding about those experiences to him/her. Tell your old self that you are here for him/her, and it’s OK to feel the way he/she felt during that time.
6. If the prior experiences were very traumatic and hard for you and bring up a lot of emotions that are hard to handle on your own, this is a sign to seek fo help.