We’re all living with COVID-19, even if the virus isn’t in our bodies. The CDC is keeping us informed of the medical symptoms of the virus and, unfortunately, the list keeps on growing. I’m not a doctor, so this article isn’t intended to add to the CDC’s symptom list.
Instead, let’s explore the what’s and why’s of the Other COVID-19 Symptoms of living in systemic trauma. Unfortunately, I don’t have a defined list of symptoms for you but what I do have is an explanation for why you might not feel like your pre-virus self.
Notice how you feel physically, how you behave, what you’re thinking about, the fluctuations in your emotions. Anything that’s causing you suffering of any kind or anything that has you feeling “not like myself” – those are some of the Other COVID-19 Symptoms. Things I’m experiencing in myself and observing in clients:
- I can’t sleep / I have bizarre dreams / all I want to do is sleep
- Food doesn’t appeal to me / I can’t stop eating / I eat way more sugar these days
- I cry at the drop of a hat / I feel no emotion at all
- I’m angry / I’m sad / I’m confused / I’m agitated
- My head / shoulders / back / hips hurt
The most common thing I hear is, “I don’t know why I’m …”
Why? Because we’re all living in a place of Systemic Trauma. Not because you’re broken or weak or any other blaming, shaming or stigma-based words.
About Systemic Trauma
Systemic Trauma describes environments or institutions that initiate and maintain traumatic responses. War. Famine. Global Pandemic. Anything that gives our brains an overwhelming amount of information to process. Trauma starts with an initial hit to our nervous system and the longer the hits keep coming, the more confused our nervous system becomes . Our brains can’t communicate with our central nervous system (which regulates our physical functions) in their usual patterns. The brain’s job is to receive information and put it in a pre-set orderly process to keep us alive. In trauma, neurological chaos ensues.
How the brain responds to trauma
The brain is brilliant in how it manages our lives. Our sympathetic nervous system (at the back of the brain) makes sure our critical internal functions do their jobs without us having to think about them: heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate and others. It’s also the seat of our stress (fight or flight) responses – our body’s reaction to danger which exists to help us survive stressful and life-threatening situations. During stress response, all bodily systems are working to keep us alive in what we’ve perceived as a dangerous situation:
- Our heart rate and blood pressure increases which causes us to breathe more quickly and heavily. That’s our body’s way of moving oxygen and nutrients to our major muscle groups so we can keep moving.
- We get pale or flushed skin as blood flow is redirected. We might feel hot or cold.
- We feel on edge as we become more watchful for things that could be dangerous.
- Our memories can be affected. In order to protect ourselves, our brains don’t absorb the traumatic event as a memory.
- We feel tense or anxious as stress hormones circulate throughout the body.
With systemic trauma, any additional nervous system hits are going to keep triggering those same physiological responses. Our brain and body will respond in the only way they know how, until we teach them a new way. (More about that a few paragraphs down.)
The fact that our bodies are having the Other COVID-19 Symptoms is a good sign, in a way. It means our brain is doing its job to protect us. The thing is, our brain will try to protect us even when it’s not needed. The repetitive neuro hits that show up in systemic trauma reinforce the brain’s protective responses. That behavior gets wired into our sympathetic nervous system and can show up for a very long time, when the slightest hint of the past trauma is triggered. (This is how PTSD shows up.)
Something else about the brain is that it can’t tell the difference between physical and emotional danger, which is why we have stress responses in either case. The brain processes danger as physical and we have to address those symptoms to get to what’s happening on our emotional and mental levels. All the parts of us – physical, mental, emotional – are intertwined, so it’s important to treat them all with care. In my work as a yoga therapist, I use the physical body as a doorway to mental and emotional distress.
We can learn to manage the symptoms
The front of the brain receives new information. Our response to this information is driven by what we already know or have experienced. We respond the way we’re wired to respond.
The good news is – we can change that wiring. We can learn to process new information differently and, by doing so, build new sympathetic nervous system response mechanisms. When our stress responses become less extreme, our physical, mental and emotional symptoms can also lessen.
This is where the parasympathetic nervous system can help us. As you read above, the sympathetic nervous system creates a “fight or flight” response during any potential danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is the place of “rest and digest” and regulates the body from overworking so we can return to a place of calm.
Want to learn to process information differently and find more calm?
Mindfulness – moving your focus from external to internal – is an important practice in accessing your rest and digest capabilities. Rest = slowing your fight or flight response down. Digest = learning to process information differently so your brain can develop new response habits. You can learn to respond, not react to stressors.
Want to try?
Practice the suggestions below at a time when you’re feeling calmer so that you can more easily get to them when your symptoms show up. If you feel like you’re living in a constant state of symptoms do what you can to practice these. Do what you can. Be gentle. If it’s difficult to practice one of these, try a different one. If none of them seem accessible to you, it’s not because you’re broken or can’t do this. It’s because when our brain is in its familiar cycle, it can take a while to put its attention on something new.
- Spend time in nature. Breathe fresh air (through a mask, please). Allow yourself to feel your connection to the natural world. Notice the touch of air on your skin, place the palms of your hands on the Earth to help ground your nervous system. Especially now, when the world is quieter, absorb the sights and sounds of the miracles happening around us.
- Do something you enjoy – a hobby, a physical movement, touching a pet – whatever it is that can put your attention on something other than your symptoms. Allow your focus to be in this place of familiarity.
- Practice doing one thing at a time. Multitasking activates many parts of the brain at once and keeps us focused externally. Practice allowing yourself to be just in the current moment.
- Breathe slowly and deeply to move your breath out of your chest and into your abdomen. Inhale through your nose for 4 – 5 counts and exhale through your mouth for 5 – 6 counts.
- Repeat the word “calm” or “healing” out loud or in your mind. If you get distracted, come back to the word. Slow your breathing and slow the length of the word. Stay with this as long as you’d like.
- Picture yourself in a peaceful place that you love. Where’s your happy place? Even if you can’t physically get there, use all your senses to see, hear, touch, taste, smell this familiar and calming place.
You can practice the last three bullet points with the help of a mindfulness app (I like Insight Timer), YouTube videos or an online yoga class. I recommend coming to one (or more) of my SomaYoga classes. Somatic movement is a way to manage your symptoms via specific, small movement patterns. The somatic nervous system is responsible for muscle movement and is an efficient way to teach your body and mind new ways to respond to stress.
One last thing
We’re living in what can feel like an impossible situation. It’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed. Know that you are not alone and know that you have the ability to manage your symptoms and find internal and external healing. Reach out to people who can support your healing whether that be friends, family members, or a professional like me.
Know that systemic trauma is real and your experience in it is valid. Be gentle with yourself.