Differentiating the Past from the Present: The Ice Storm as a Traumatic Reminder
Through-out last week, as I met with parents for therapy sessions, I heard a common theme. The recent ice storms- and subsequent power outages and school closures- had many parents experiencing flashbacks to early pandemic shut-down days. Many parents described being triggered by the school cancellations- and subsequent feelings of isolation- with immediate panicked thoughts of “How long will this last?” “My kids are already driving me crazy.” “How can I get any work done?” “I can’t handle this.”
To be sure, it was a rough time. Anticipated plans were canceled abruptly. Kids, once again, lost out on fun experiences they’d been looking forward to. In addition, many families were struggling to deal with their freezing cold homes and basic survival needs due to the lack of power. Many parents’ intense responses, though, were less about the current hardship and more about all the feelings being stirred up by memories of the past. As a result, these parents felt more than just inconvenienced: they felt more stressed, more hopeless, and more scared about their family’s functioning.
In reflecting back on the repeated comments I was hearing, I realized there may be value in recognizing trauma-triggers from the COVID-19 pandemic and learning ways of managing the present moment.
A trauma is an event or experience that overwhelms our coping capacities. When trauma occurs, memories are encoded in the brain differently than typical memories. Memories of traumatic events are stored as fragments; they are non-linear and disjointed; often comprised of sensations and emotions rather than a clear, coherent narrative.
When our bodies perceive something that unconsciously- or consciously- is connected to a traumatic event- our brains may have difficulty differentiating between the past and present. For example, a person who was in a car accident on a bridge may become anxious or panicky every time they drive near a bridge (even one that looks completely different) in the future.
How does this relate to the recent ice-storm and the pandemic? The COVID-19 pandemic has been experienced vastly differently by various people. Specific communities have been disproportionately impacted. For some individuals, there may be specific, identifiable events that were experienced as traumatic such as the sudden death of a loved one. For many of the parents I work with, it was not one specific event but rather- a series of ongoing, chronic stressors combined with the never-ending uncertainty about the future that had a cumulative negative impact upon their brains.
If your brain perceived chronic threat and was therefore in a perpetual state of feeling endangered- then any reminders of that time period may bring up stress responses that are disproportionate to the current stressor.
This is relevant because it may make the present moment more challenging if your brain can’t distinguish between the past and present. While it was certainly very difficult to have kids home from school multiple days in a row and to not be able to leave the house due to ice on the roads- the challenge was magnified for those whose brain perceived they were in a state of threat and danger.
For some parents- the reminders of no-school, the forced-isolation, and the experience of struggling to get work done while simultaneously providing childcare- signaled to their brains and bodies- “you are at risk,” “you won’t be able to handle this.” Being triggered in this way may have caused a range of trauma responses.
If this was your experience, you may have spent time feeling frozen or foggy, which would have made it difficult to think clearly. You may have experienced a strong desire to run away. You may have been particularly amped up and engaged in more conflict than you do typically. You may have felt your heart pounding or your muscles tense and aching.
In the future, how can you cope when you are triggered by the past?
- Be curious. When you notice yourself in an aroused state or a shut-down/hopeless/ foggy state- ask yourself, “Am I responding to the current moment or is this about the past?”
- Be compassionate. Respond to yourself as you would a friend. “Of course it makes sense that you are upset. It is understandable this is hard right now.”
- Self-soothe. Use a strategy to bring some calm and healing to the present moment. Have a cup of tea, snuggle up in a cozy blanket, light a scented candle, or go take a hot shower.
- Differentiate the past and the present. Remind yourself how this is different than the past experience. “We are going to be out of school for a few days; not months. This experience has a known/understandable cause and we know how to fix it.”
- Find hope. Recognize the current moment is limited and look forward to the future. “This moment will not last forever. In a few days things will go back to normal and I am looking forward to _____ over the weekend.”
Being able to differentiate present stressors from past experiences will allow you to respond more calmly and effectively going forward.