Hope in 2020

Hope has been hit hard in 2020.  As a typically optimistic person I find myself struggling to maintain hope more than any other year of my life. Isolation caused by COVID, racial disparities in our country, multiple natural disasters, and a national election that is causing great division, have all contributed to my loss of hope.

As a therapist, I have worked with more suicidal clients this year than any other year. Holding my client’s despair and my own has been a challenge to navigate.  Walking with others in the dark valley of the shadow of death while feeling my own anxiety, despair, and hopelessness, is pushing me to care for myself and search for hope in new ways.

During this year, as I tended to my own depression, I became concerned for those who were struggling with depression and anxiety before 2020.  For those struggling before COVID there is a heavier weight to bear. The bleakness of this season sadly has cost not only over 200,000 lives to COVID, many to racial conflict, but countless to overdoses, suicide and heart attacks. We will not know the total combined casualties of this season for some time.

The events of 2020 have stripped away many of our strategies for coping. Strategies that we have come to depend on. The lack of access to our normal routines for exercise, social and spiritual connection, and play, have heightened our sense of hopelessness. Our resiliency as a nation and as individuals is being tested.

In order to continue to find hope and resiliency in a season that is relentless and unpredictable it is important to be able to find “the ground”.  Typically, when life is “normal,” we have emotional ups and downs but we tend to not lose our footing, some people call this feeling grounded.  I often explain to my clients how waves of emotions tend to upend us emotionally and send us spinning end over end into despair and hopelessness.

In order to be grounded, it is important to have some context for what we are going through so that we actually know what and where the ground is.  Collectively, worldwide, we are living through sustained trauma.  Sustained trauma is a long-term traumatic event that occurs over a period of time. This trauma began with COVID clear back in February and March and continued to add new layers through traumatic moments around race, politics and natural disasters. These have added to the chaos and affected each of us individually and as a group.

To further understand being grounded, it is important to understand trauma. Many people have described trauma with a capital “T” Trauma and lower case “t” trauma.  Capital “T” traumas are those big upending events that are often markers in our stories that are easy to point to and impact us significantly. Lower case “t” traumas are small experiences that we may not always be able to articulate, those times when our needs aren’t met, where we are hurt emotionally over and over in a covert way that is hard to see the impact of. Every human has both “T” and “t” trauma in their story whether they recognize it or not. When a new trauma occurs in our life it is like a rock being thrown into the water and it stirs up all of our past “T” and “t” traumas.

So here we are in 2020, collectively, worldwide, all experiencing a sustained trauma. This means that every person in the world whether they recognize it or not is experiencing their individual “T” and “t” trauma being stirred back up and it is causing a reaction, most likely behavior changes or big emotions.  If you have done work around the trauma in your story you may have awareness of this and be able to tend to it, but it is still taking a big toll. 

If you have yet to do the work of exploring the trauma in your story, you may find yourself perplexed by your own behaviors, emotions, or growing depression and anxiety. 

One thing I can guarantee, whether you see it in yourself or not, you are seeing this on a massive level when you interact with others.  Many have described this season as the world being on fire.  As a therapist I see it as every individual, including myself, at times acting out in unpredictable ways.  We are living in a world full of people reacting out of their trauma.

Understanding that the chaos we feel is due to sustained trauma enables us to make sense of the chaos instead of getting lost in it. We are able to put into context the bizarre behavior of someone online calling us names or saying something untrue about us.  We realize the person yelling at someone about mask wearing, perhaps, has something being triggered in their own story and is feeling unsafe or threatened.  The work we do to not internalize others behavior as an attack, helps keep chaos at bay and keep us grounded. This starts by considering how trauma is affecting others and our self.

Beyond contextualizing behavior in the frame of sustained trauma, each person must work to build new routines and ways of self-care.  As a part of a community we can do this work for ourselves and for those who are not able to fight the levels of despair alone.  As flight attendants remind us, in an emergency, we must first put on our own oxygen mask, then assist others. 

The “Breakdown”

This means you must first attend to your need for care. Asses your “T” and “t” traumas, and how they are being stirred up.  You may need to find a therapist or counselor to help walk through this step.  Next, pause and breathe. Practice exercises that calm your body and regulate anxiety that is impacting you.  Finally, be creative as you find new rhythms of relaxation, play, and spiritual and social connection.  Then, when you have your oxygen mask on, look to those around you who are struggling.  Only then, as a community, will we battle the ugliness of hopelessness and despair together. 

-By Kali Jensen, LMHCA
October 15, 2020