Lost for words – The Covid trauma

And so, we’re finally here. The last month of the year. And what a truly unbelievable year it’s been! Congrats to all of us for getting through 2020!! 

I notice at times I have had to double check with myself about what has actually happened. I started the year seeing my clients in person, commuting to and from London, dashing onto tube trains, standing in crowded pubs with not a face mask or hand sanitiser to be seen. How much things have changed. Everyone’s lives have been affected and it’s not quite over yet. 

I’ve noticed that when I try to verbalise my experience of this crazy year, I really struggle to find my words (something that really isn’t me at all). I start sentences in my head but can’t seem to finish them. The words just won’t come. I seem to be in a state shock, as if something hasn’t been processed yet. This is a well-versed stage of trauma. 

A bit of trauma theory

When a traumatic incident occurs, we go into a state of hyper arousal. This is our bodies way of protecting ourselves. We prepare to fight or flight so to avoid harm or danger. We experience increased heart rate and respiration, cold and pale skin, dilated pupils and raised blood pressure.

If fight or flight aren’t viable options, we might go into freeze mode. This I feel is very pertinent to the pandemic.  This Covid -19 trauma has lasted a long time, making freeze a more than likely response. Freezing is a form of disassociation. In freeze mode time slows down and there is a feeling of an altered reality where we feel out of our bodies. We cut ourselves off from feeling anything in order to protect ourselves. 

A consequence of being in this threatened state is that the right hemisphere of our brain associated with survival behaviours and emotional expression is turned on whilst the left verbal-linguistic part of our brain is suppressed.Specifically, the amygdala in the brain is activated and starts to record emotional memories and experiences. This differs from when we’re in a normal state of being, when the hippocampus is used instead. When experiences are processed in the hippocampus, they are properly archived in the context of time and space. They are given perspective with a clear and coherent narrative. The opposite is the case with the amygdala. Traumatic experiences get recorded with no such archiving, instead they exist as confused, messy and disorganised.

Our ability to retell our stories is severely disrupted in trauma. Gaps can exist where we’d normally find words. We know, in a felt sense, that something has happened but are unable to articulate it. Psychologist Suzanne Phillips explains that “trauma defies language; it resists being communicated.”

In times of Covid

Holding in mind what happens to us in trauma, it is surely obvious that given the year we have had with Covid-19 there has been an inevitable impact. The emotional turmoil, which we have all experienced to varying degrees, is causing symptoms of trauma to manifest.  

Since Covid-19 arrived, we have been experiencing a drawn-out period of trauma. We’ve had our lives turned upside down. When we think we might have space to take a breath and find some calm, we get told the infection rate is rising and we need to be careful and fearful. The anxiety is endless, with so much unknown and so much uncertainty. My struggle with words is part of this traumatic experience. There has been no time for our minds and bodies to find some rest and escape our hyper and anxious states. We are living in trauma and still will be for the time being. 

The search for words

Psychoanalyst Donnel Stern coined the term “unformulated experience” for events like trauma where there is a lack clarity or differentiation. Stern explains that “if we pay close attention, there is often a sensation of something coming before language.” This sensation is the key to unlocking our experience and allowing words to come forth. 

Attending to these sensations, images, postures and behaviours allows us to unlock what is hidden and unspoken. We need to not force the words out; they will come in time. More importantly we need to be with our felt experience and express it in whatever way suits us. This can be through dreams, creative means such as painting, or poetry, or even through movement of the body or voice.  Through these non-verbal methods, we can express aspects of the trauma which have yet to be encoded in words. Through that very expression, a narrative is created. It doesn’t flow easy but bit by bit it forms. 

For me, when I hold within what a crazy year it’s been, I feel like I am on a rollercoaster, just before the big dip. My stomach is lifted against gravity, I hold my breath and hope I can survive the ride. (Fingers crossed!) I am locked in with no choice, along for the ride. I hope the harness can hold me safe and tight. The ride will be over, there will be an end point.  There will be relief.  So just through my image of the rollercoaster, I have begun to form words to my experience. A story is in progress.

And for us all our stories will come. We just need to be patient and stay with ourselves. And most importantly give ourselves rest and acknowledge what a year’s it’s been and not forget to bid it a sweet farewell. 

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

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