The 3 Pillars for Creating a Safe Space: Managing Trauma Symptoms During COVID-19

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Written by Lindsay Wheeler, LCSW, LCADC, Executive Director of High Focus Centers in Lawrenceville

In these uncertain times, it may feel difficult to discover a sense of structure and calm amidst the chaos.  If you are currently managing mental health symptoms, coping with traumatic experiences, or if you are noticing a decline in your well-being during COVID-19, you may feel symptoms are heightened and unmanageable while trying to adjust to the “new normal.” The good news is that there are simple strategies anyone can practice to minimize the impact of these emotions and continue to live a life with meaning.

When experiencing high levels of stress or trauma, it can be difficult for the mind and body to work together, as staying “connected” can feel too painful, both emotionally and physically. By utilizing simple coping strategies, your mind and body can begin to work together to create an internal and external environment that is safe, nurturing, and conducive to wellness. Creating this space may feel difficult at times, particularly if you are struggling to manage symptoms, so it is important to be patient and kind to yourself and understand that your mind and body are just trying to protect you. Below are the 3 Pillars of Safety (physical, emotional, social) and practical coping skills to assist you in creating a safe space.

Physical Safety

When you think of physical safety, you might be thinking, “Are my doors locked? Did I remember to change the fire alarm battery yesterday?” Although these are aspects of staying physically safe at home for most individuals, in the context of mental health and trauma, maintaining physical safety consists of creating an environment that allows the mind and body to effectively manage emotional distress.

After experiencing a traumatic event, there may be moments where you feel emotionally and physically unsafe, even when you are not in danger. The amygdala (the emotional memory center in our brain) can activate our nervous system, even when there is no danger present (also known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response). The nervous system can be triggered by memories, negative thoughts, flashbacks, or even something as simple as body sensations or smell. This may cause increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, irritability, panic attacks, chronic pain, increased alertness/hypervigilance, nightmares and flashbacks, impulsive behavior, substance abuse, or feeling detached from the body. It is also possible to feel uncertain of what even triggered these symptoms to begin with, and that is okay too! The goal is to get the mind and body working together again to better identify triggers and manage these symptoms.

By engaging in certain coping strategies, the frontal lobe in the brain is activated, which is responsible for problem solving, memory, language, and reasoning. By activating this part of the brain, you will be able to create a sense of safety, recognize that you are not currently in immediate danger, and reduce feelings of emotional distress. To manage some of these symptoms, creating an environment that feels physically safe can minimize and reduce the extremes in which you experience the emotional impact. Here are some simple ways you can create a safe space at home:

  • Create a Coping Kit: Do you have any old shoe boxes lying around? Break out the glitter and the glue and get creative! This can be something you can do alone or with loved ones. Decorating the box in itself can be soothing, relaxing, and a great distraction from emotional distress. Once complete, place different items inside that help you feel calm and at ease. Some examples include: stress balls, photos of nature or loved ones, aromatherapy, favorite lotions, list of songs you enjoy, coping cards, or inspirational quotes. There is no wrong way to create a coping kit, as long as you utilize items that you find helpful and supportive.
  • Create a Coping Corner: Along with your kit, it is important to create a space at home that is private for when you feel you need a break or some alone time. This becomes especially important if symptoms are heightened. A coping corner can feel a bit like your oasis at home, where you can include candles, soft blankets, comfortable sweatshirts or clothing, and some distractions such as art supplies and music. The purpose of this space is to tune out the negative thoughts, distressing emotions, and difficult social stressors heard on the news, and to tune in to being mindful and compassionate towards yourself. It is important to keep this space welcoming, warm, and free of clutter.
  • Keep it Consistent: When was the last time you ate a healthy meal? Went to sleep at a decent hour? Showered first thing in the morning? As easy as it may be to get off track during quarantine and social distancing, maintaining a consistent schedule at home – such as showering, going to bed and waking up the same time every day, and eating regular meals – is important for your overall physical and mental health. This will also be extremely helpful when transitioning out of quarantine.
  • Exercise Your Strength: Staying physically strong and healthy is just as important! It is simply amazing how your body will keep you moving and hold you up even when you feel the “weight of the world” on your shoulders weighing you down. Engaging in any type of exercise (running, walking, weight training, or yoga) can help you reconnect with your body in a way that increases your internal strength and empowerment.

Emotional Safety

Many times when experiencing difficult emotions, it is easy for the mind to say, “I just want to get rid of this anxiety, I hate feeling this way!” However, anxiety can be helpful in certain situations, like preparing for a presentation or studying for an exam, and if you try to turn one emotion off, you turn them all off. If you try to “get rid” of all anxiety, instead you might having a feeling of being detached or numb. It is not possible to feel a sense of calm without knowing what a sense of urgency feels like, just like it is not possible to feel pure joy without knowing the impact of sadness.

Emotional safety does not mean eliminating emotions that bring pain, it means having the ability to regulate emotions both by yourself and with the help of others, and to reduce the suffering one may feel when emotions are heightened for prolonged periods of time. It is important to invite emotions in, even the difficult ones, recognize the emotion is there, and to nurture that feeling. Would you push away a friend who came to you saying they were having a difficult time and needed your help? Probably not! Try doing the same the next time you are feeling difficult emotions. Take care of those feelings and treat your emotions just as you would treat a friend in need. Here are some simple strategies you can try to provide a sense of emotional safety both at home or on-the-go:

  • Self-Soothing Strategies:
    • Can you think of the first time you smelled fresh baked cookies? What about the delightful taste of your first cup of coffee in the morning? It is amazing how much your senses can impact your emotions when you are mindful about the world around you. Grounding is a simple skill you can try anywhere, which in a literal sense helps to reconnect you with the “ground” and the world around you when emotional distress feels overwhelming. Engaging in this technique helps you to mindfully connect to the present moment and create a sense of safety when experiencing difficult memories, flashbacks, or emotional suffering. Try using your five senses to practice these skills at home:
      • Sight: read a book, attend virtual museums, watch a new television show or movie as a family, observe nature, look at or take new pictures of your family
      • Smell: bake cookies or a new recipe, light a scented candle, use fabric softener on your bedding, use your favorite lotion or perfume, smell lavender, try deep breathing
      • Touch: wear comfortable clothing, paint, cuddle your pet, take a bath or shower, use a fidget cube, make your own stress ball with balloons and rice/or sand, go outside and feel the breeze/sunshine
      • Sound: listen to music, meditate, laugh, play a comedy special, pick up an instrument
      • Taste: eat your favorite food/dessert in moderation, eat mindfully and focus on texture and taste, try something new, have tea/coffee/hot chocolate
    • If you want to practice these skills on-the-go or want to practice at a higher intensity, try the Self-Soothing 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique. This is a helpful skill when feeling intense symptoms of panic to bring you back to the present moment:
      • 5-Sight: What are five things you can see right now? Verbalize what you are seeing out loud or in your mind (example: I see my computer screen, I see my car outside, I see the pen in my hand).
      • 4-Touch: Notice sensations in and around your body and name 4 things you can feel (example: I feel the chair on my back, I feel my sweater that is warm, I feel the breeze on my cheek).
      • 3-Sound: Explore 3 sounds you are hearing. This can be as simple as a clock ticking, music playing, or even the sound of your own breathing.
      • 2-Smell: Mindfully notice 2 things you can smell (example: scented candle, freshly cut grass).
      • 1-Taste: Name one thing you can taste. This may require you to reach for something nearby (mints, coffee, toothpaste from the morning).
    • Avoid the Quick-Fix
      • Emotional pain can also result in somatic symptoms and health problems such as headaches, lack of energy, difficulty sleeping, increased heart rate, weight gain/loss, memory issues, stomach discomfort, and a weakened immune system. In the short-term, individuals may turn to drugs or alcohol for immediate relief, however, symptoms often return with increased intensity, causing ongoing substance use and creating a vicious cycle. This can also cause potential medical and mental health issues, as well as lethal side effects if you are currently on medications. Speak to a healthcare professional if you are noticing that you are using substances to cope with current symptoms.
    • Create a Sense of Accomplishment
      • When emotions are heightened, the brain can easily turn to negative self-talk and feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness. These are common emotions that individuals who have experienced trauma experience when triggered. It is important to challenge these negative falsehoods with factual accomplishments each day. Creating a sense of mastery can be taking a small step towards a goal, such as reducing isolation by going for a short walk or trying a new hobby, such as photography. Remember, mini accomplishments eventually add up to a larger change and can cause you to feel more competent and effective.

Social Connections

Having a healthy, positive, social support network is essential for all human-beings. Feeling connected to people you trust and that you can reach out to for help is essential in creating a sense of safety. It is possible for those who have had traumatic experiences to experience difficulty in relationships due to feelings of mistrust or past dangerous/negative interactions with their supports. It is important to build a social network that is emotionally and physically safe and conducive to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

  • Know Who to Call: Have you ever called that person who manages to say the wrong thing at the wrong time? Try not to call that person in a time of need! Make sure when you need support you call someone who will actually support you, without judgement. It is easy to repeat unhealthy patterns when we are in distress, so try to have important phone numbers for supports, emergency contacts, and email addresses within reach so that you can easily access them in a crisis.
  • Join a Support Group: Many agencies offer online or in-person support groups that can assist with mental health issues, substance use, spirituality, and grief. This can help with feeling connected to other individuals who may have had similar experiences and reduce feelings of loneliness.
  • Call a Friend: Although depression, anxiety, and trauma symptoms may tell you to isolate, it can be very helpful in those moments to pick up the phone and call a friend. Staying connected to people who care about you can help to challenge some of those negative thoughts and keep you grounded. Don’t worry, you are not a burden to the people who love you, no matter what your negative thoughts are telling you!
  • Be Creative: Use virtual meetings/social media to “see” your loved ones while practicing social distancing. Attend virtual activities online to stay connected.
  • Seek out Professional Help: If you are noticing that symptoms have become unmanageable, please reach out to a healthcare professional and a licensed therapist to obtain the necessary services needed to assist you in your healing process.

Remember, life may have pain but that does not mean you have to suffer. Being patient with yourself and utilizing coping skills to have your mind, body, and emotions working together is the goal to maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Coping strategies do not eliminate your emotions, rather they help you manage your emotions effectively so that you can be present and fully experience your everyday life. Not all coping skills will work in every situation, so make sure to have various strategies in your tool box. Practice and repeat!