How to Survive an Apocalypse


by Elena Greco

Typical reading time: 6 minutes

April 9, 2020

Well, here we are in the middle of an apocalypse.  Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?!

The COVID-19 situation mushroomed quickly, and we have all found ourselves in an upside-down life we never could have predicted, with pending goals, travels and dreams ripped from us.  And we’ve exhibited behaviors we didn’t know we were capable of.  Who knew that the first thing we would do in the face of a pandemic was buy up all the toilet paper?!

Plans are out the window, social connection—at least in-person connection—is gone, restaurants and entertainment venues have closed, and commerce has ground to a halt.  Streets are eerily quiet.  People huddle in their homes, either suddenly attempting to work from home—in the midst of children home from schools which have closed indefinitely and spouses who are also trying to work in the middle of it all—or by necessity quickly learning how to do their jobs via Skype or Zoom and virtual conferencing.

Fortunately, these applications were already in place, and using them is not a giant leap for most of us. And of course most business communication has been done via email for a very long time now. But teachers—of high school, yoga, dance, history, science, music and every imaginable subject—must quickly put together online lessons or classes, some of them learning to use these applications for the first time, since they will not be reunited with their students, and their students with each other, for the foreseeable future.  Others, realizing that their livelihood of working with clients individually is gone, and that their clients still need their help, must invent new ways of working.  Those who made their living as freelancers—musicians, restaurant servers, temporary workers of all sorts—must come up with creative ways to pay the bills with no income in sight.  Life must go on.

I was having trouble focusing at first and wondering what that was about, when it came to me that what I was feeling was shock, and that most of us are probably experiencing at least a symptom or two of trauma. That trauma is likely to continue for as long as this pandemic lasts, and beyond, as many try to regain their financial footing or find new ways of generating income, and some are desperate just to keep a roof over their heads and food in their mouths when their freelance work has disappeared overnight, with the future uncertain.  Those who work in the medical field will be exposed to major trauma, both theirs and that of their patients, every single day, possibly for months.

It seems to be the place of those of us who are accustomed either to dealing with trauma ourselves, or to practicing healing within the helping professions or through the creative arts, to rise to the occasion and offer advice, information, solace, entertainment, inspiration—and also a few laughs!  We do need to keep laughing.  Nature has gifted us with humor for a reason, I think, and that is that it’s healing for us.

Trauma.  Trauma is caused by a situation which threatens, or which we perceive threatens, our safety or survival. There is no formula to prescribe exactly how much you can suffer from any particular trauma.  What might seem like a small trauma to others might have been devastating for the trauma sufferer and result in severe trauma symptoms.  Conversely, sometimes people go through what looks like a pretty hellacious trauma and come out pretty well.  However, everyone suffers from the effects of trauma.  Don’t let your belief that your trauma wasn’t “severe enough” prevent you from understanding the effects that the trauma had on you, that you’re entitled to have your suffering, and that you deserve relief and help.

Not sure if you’re experiencing trauma?  Some signs that you might be experiencing trauma include inability to focus, wandering aimlessly, feeling removed, emotional dullness, lethargy, jumpiness, sleep issues, nightmares, flashbacks, or unpredictable bouts of anger, free-floating anxiety or sadness.  If you notice yourself experiencing even one of these symptoms that you did not have before the COVID-19 pandemic began, you might suspect that you’re feeling the effects of trauma and start to help yourself stay in balance.  It’s not a bad idea to do it prophylactically in this situation.  So how do we do that?

First, it’s helpful to understand a bit about how the nervous system works.  The autonomic nervous system (ANS)—which includes nerves that control the heart, endocrine system (which rules hormones), and the muscles of the digestive system—consists of two parts which serve opposing functions in helping us maintain homeostasis, or balance.  The first is the sympathetic nervous system, which is related to action, and the second is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is related to relaxation, healing and passive functions.

The sympathetic nervous system prepares us for action in the case of emergency or threat.  Nature intends it to work primarily for
short-term emergencies or actions requiring us to perform in some way.  In the face of perceived threat, adrenaline prepares us for physical action and the sort of thinking that can ensure our survival.  Our heart rate increases, our focus sharpens, and we’re ready for action:  this is the fight-or-flight response.

The parasympathetic nervous system supports non-emergency functions, such as digestion, growth, repair, healing and the immune system; it works primarily for maintenance purposes.

When one system is activated, the other must come into action soon after in order to balance our nervous system.  Put another way, action or stress must be followed by rest for our system, or our body and mind get out of balance and symptoms are sure to follow.

The two systems cannot function simultaneously, and they need each other in order to provide homeostasis, or balance.  If the body or mind is out of balance in this regard for any length of time, damage will occur.  When we lead a stressful life or experience chronic trauma and do nothing to balance the stress, our sympathetic nervous system will be overworked, and the parasympathetic nervous system will not get an opportunity to do its work in restoring us to health.  With post-traumatic stress, the sympathetic nervous system is often permanently ON, so the parasympathetic nervous system does not have an opportunity to balance it. There must be a conscious effort to support the parasympathetic nervous system in order to heal from trauma.

Mitigating the effects of the current trauma.  What we’re experiencing right now in the middle of the pandemic does not, for most of us, require a fight-or-flight response.  And yet, that is exactly what our minds and bodies might be experiencing if we don’t remain conscious of what is happening within us.  Seeing and reading about the potential of the virus on social media and news outlets for hours each day fans the flames of fear and panic. Worry about our financial or professional future adds to the fear. All of this stimulates our sympathetic nervous system. And while being forced to stay at home might not seem to be stressful, think of a caged animal. Are they relaxed because they’re contained?

Relaxation.  What we should be doing is encouraging our parasympathetic nervous system to do its job in keeping us healthy.  To do that, we need, first of all, to relax.  Relaxing in the face of a pandemic might seem odd, but it really only requires that you do things that encourage rest, relaxation, pleasure and renewal.

Acknowledgement. A really important part of healing from trauma and in avoiding future post-traumatic symptoms is to acknowledge what is happening and what you’re feeling about it.  During a chronic trauma that occurs over a long period of time it is even more important to stay aware of what you’re feeling so that your responses don’t get suppressed and cause you trouble later.  It is human to feel confusion, lack of focus, anger, fear, sadness and grief around traumatic events, whether they are acute, such as a bombing, or chronic, such as—you guessed it—an ongoing pandemic.  Acknowledge to yourself that you might be feeling these things and see if that’s true for you.

Awareness.  Awareness of what is happening internally is also a great step in avoiding problems related to trauma later on.  Seeing the big picture of what is happening externally is beneficial, as well.  How do you increase awareness, not only of what’s around you, but what’s happening within you?  Read more about awareness in my article, Awareness.

Self-Soothing.  Doing things to mitigate the stress, encourage relaxation and give you pleasure are an important step.  You might call them “self-soothing.”  These are things that allow your parasympathetic nervous system to do its job and are essential in times of trauma or stress. What is soothing to you when you’re upset?  Don’t stop with just the first thing that comes to mind; see if you can come up with a list of your particular ways of self-soothing that work for you, maybe keep it by your computer or desk, and pick an item or two to practice every day.  These aren’t indulgences; they’re ways to keep yourself healthy in the face of stress.  Of course, things that are obviously unhealthy, such as drugs, over-eating or binge-watching television, don’t belong in your list, since you want to support your health (but they do offer fleeting pleasure, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is why we are sometimes drawn to them in crisis).

Meditation.  Studies suggest that when certain natural opioid-like neurochemicals reach the amygdala—a part of our brain associated with fear, among other things—we experience less fear. Based on the results of meditation experiments studied so
far, it seems likely that practicing meditation stimulates production or release of these same chemicals. So one thing we might do when feeling overwhelmed by trauma in order to promote relaxation and awareness is meditate, whether through a true meditation practice or through guided eyes-closed meditations or visualizations.  Even just sitting on a cushion with our eyes closed watching the thoughts and images swirl around has the effect of our being more removed from the emotional impact of those things.  And closing our eyes removes about ninety percent of our sensory input, reducing the stimulation, so sitting on your meditation cushion (or chair) with your eyes closed for a time is beneficial in itself, regardless of how proficient you might think you are at meditating.  If you’ve never been a meditator, or previously had difficulty meditating, you might want to take a look at my article, The Psychology of Meditation.

Routine.  Humans are creatures of habit. We function best when we don’t have to think about the mundane practicalities of our daily lives, and maintaining a routine has a soothing quality.  During the pandemic, do your best to maintain your daily routine.  If you always got up at a certain time, then plugged in the coffee, took a shower and got dressed, keep doing that.  Just because you don’t have to go to an office or an appointment doesn’t mean you should throw your normal routine out the window.  Keep to your old routine as much as possible, and add a new element or two that suits your temporary new life.  Having a routine to fall into, no matter how simple, gives us a feeling of security and normalcy.

Nature is immensely healing and stimulating to the parasympathetic nervous system, so now is a great time to be spending time in the fresh air, maybe taking a walk in the park, hiking a trail or bicycling on a back road.

Music.  A truly great way to self-soothe (or self-motivate) is through music.  Any of the senses can be a portal for self-soothing, but music is particularly effective.  To learn more about the powerful effect music can have on us, read an article I wrote about that very subject, Better Living Through Music.

Human Connection.  One thing that seems super important right now for all of us is to stay connected.  Since our ability to meet
publicly has been reduced or eliminated, we can meet in any of the myriad of electronic methods available to us.  Use the enforced time off to explore a new one way to connect!  In such an emotionally fraught and stressful time, we need each other more than ever. This not only serves you, but those you connect with; they might need it even more than you do.

I recommend making appointments with friends, neighbors, relatives and colleagues to “meet” electronically at a certain time “in person,” whether by phone or through a virtual video app.  In these times, hearing a human voice and seeing a human face are particularly important, giving us human connection and often pleasure, both important to our health, filling the great need that humans have for proximity to another human being when we are forced to remain apart.

Meditating, reading a book in your favorite genre, doing a craft you enjoy, maintaining a routine, listening to inspiring or soothing music, practicing your creative art, exercising or practicing hatha yoga, revisiting an old hobby, speaking with friends on the phone or a video app, or walking in nature are all healthy ways to support the parasympathetic nervous system in doing its job and keeping you healthy.

Service.  It might seem that you’re not in the right “place” to serve others when you’re a bit freaked out yourself.  But, amazingly, we can always be of service to other human beings, utilizing whatever we happen to be able to do in the moment.  Smiling at someone when you walk down the street can be healing to them at this particular time, when many of us are under orders to avoid other humans, often walking with our heads down and our eyes averted.  (I’ve discovered in this odd social-distancing event that this eyes-averted thing seems to happen automatically when we attempt to avoid someone.)  Perhaps you can write, make music, make masks, call someone who lives alone, shop for someone who can’t—whatever you can do, do it.  Service doesn’t just help the one being served; it helps the one doing the service, as well.

So here we go, off into the apocalypse! May we all come out the other side stronger and more connected than before.

See Elena’s bios for more information about the author.

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