Emotional Health

A Therapist’s Views on the Pandemic

Jane Moffett, PhD is a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of trauma and traumatic loss. Earlier this year, in the Spring, she participated in a webinar for the Rhode Island Episcopal Clergy addressing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and offering insights into how we can help those in need. While we mourn the loss of so many, within our country and around the world, this pandemic has also plunged us into a period of economic devastation with millions of unemployed Americans facing homelessness and hunger. Compounding the trauma is the uncertainty of the upcoming presidential election: both the process and the outcome. And, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to call out racial injustice and the need for radical change in our nation, we simultaneously must grapple with the disproportionate loss of life and the increased risks Covid-19 has on Black Americans. Many of us are at a loss of how to deal with these compounding traumas.

Each Monday, over the next three weeks, WVFC will present Dr. Moffett’s posts in a three-part series:

  1. Adapting to Changes in our Work and Personal Lives 
  2. Trauma and Battle Fatigue
  3. A Pandemic Self-Care Tool Kit 

This week, in Adapting to Changes in Our Work and Personal Lives, Dr. Moffett addresses the physical, emotional and spiritual impact of living in this extended time of uncertainty, understanding the effects of trauma as we are constantly exposed to the pandemic’s unimaginable stress, and the importance of knowing and examining how we respond to traumatic events. These posts may cause anxiety for some of you. It is normal to want to have a lovely summer and many may want to avoid more talk of the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the other issues that American citizens are dealing with. If these posts are too much in this moment, save them for another time. No one really knows what to say or how to write about these painful experiences in a way that will resonate for everyone. We hope that you recognize that we at WVFC are making our best effort to be part of a national conversation — one that will help us collectively find a way forward.

We welcome and are thankful for Dr. Moffett’s contribution to WVFC during this unprecedented time in American history.  

Dr. Pat 



Adapting to Changes in our Work and Personal Lives 


With the pandemic so much has changed about the way we live and work.  More and more, it seems that we have a long journey ahead of us before life returns to anything resembling normal. We won’t go back to the lives we knew, and this is very hard to acknowledge. Part of the challenge will be to create new ways to live and worship  in our lives.  

We will need to do our best to maintain emotional balance and physical well-being while serving others, or risk getting burned out or overwhelmed. This is easier said than done. 

The Impact of Living with Uncertainty

Many of us are experiencing a low-buzz of apprehension in our lives. This apprehension is rooted in the unknowns about Covid-19, the restrictions on daily life, concerns about health, lack of control and lack of leadership.  

This buzz is sometimes noticeable, and sometimes in the background, as we face new challenges in our work life, attend to at risk or ill family members, home school children, accommodate young adults who have returned homecare for aging family members and manage our own health challenges.

One of our most basic needs as humans is to feel safe — psychologically and physically, yet many of us don’t feel safe doing something as simple as picking up a gallon of milk. We are working from home more, and are in varying degrees, isolated from the support of colleagues. We are lacking the comfort of daily routines, such as a stop at the coffee shop or an after work hour at the gym. If this weren’t enough, we are  doing our best to master confusing technology and create online meeting forums. When we do meet in person, we are deprived of touch — no handshake, no hug. 

Some of us are going into settings where we may be at risk of encountering active Covid-19 cases, without knowing how our individual body might react if exposed.  

Many of us are digging deep within ourselves to respond to frontline workers and family members who are experiencing sadness, frustration, fatigue, despair, and loneliness.  Some days we may be making decisions we feel unready or reluctant to make, or we are helping others make those decisions.  

There are ways we can take care of ourselves under duress, by trying — if not always successfully, to stay resourced. So, what do I mean by duress, and what is meant by resourced? 

Shock Trauma 

We as a nation might be experiencing what psychotherapists call Shock Trauma. 

So first, what is trauma and what is Shock Trauma? 

Briefly, trauma is probably best defined as a response to a devastating experience, often repeated over a period of time. Chronic trauma overpowers a person’s ability to integrate what is happening. Such a trauma, for example, might come from a life changing illness, domestic violence, or child abuse. Overtime, one can sort out what has happened, and perhaps learn something from it, but at the time the experience is overwhelming psychologically and sometimes physically. 

Shock trauma has all the elements of trauma, but it includes an element of unwanted surprise: an occurrence that you didn’t expect, were not prepared for, and could not have prevented. Shock trauma can be manmade, such as the murder of a family member, or it can come through natural causes, such as the burning of multiple homes in a neighborhood overnight. 

Certainly, 9-11 had elements of shock trauma in the sudden, terrifying way things changed in a day. 

What we saw after 9-11 is that people had acute trauma. Acute trauma is often the result of a single incident, and may resolve without help over time.  Others, especially frontline workers, developed chronic trauma because they were repeatedly exposed to unimaginable stress and had no time to process what they are experiencing. 

Many in the mental health field are anticipating and planning for a second, or even third wave of chronic trauma in frontline workers, family members, and individuals destabilized from prolonged isolation, over the next 18 months.  

The Physical and Psychological Impact of Trauma

Because we are biological beings who are wired for survival, when there is danger in the air, our central nervous system sounds the alert.  You could see your nervous system as a kind of control tower, scanning for incoming threats, while also managing hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleep, etc. If danger is perceived, the primitive brain, through the brain stem (autonomic nervous system) and the emotional brain (the amygdala, located in the Limbic system), sounds the alert, and our survival responses are activated. 

When survival responses are activated, we get a surge of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine — stress hormones.  We’re human. We are going to respond both physically and mentally. Our responses to danger can be grouped into three possible responses: fight, flight, or freeze. Which response each of us gravitates towards depends on our physical constitution and our early life experience. 

Processing your Personal Response to Shock Trauma 

Fight: For some our response to threat may be a fight response. In the current environment of uncertainty and possible harm, a fight response might show up as anger or higher levels of irritability or frustration. Anger can suppress anxiety and fear, and can feel empowering. 

Flight: For others, a threat that cannot be seen or prevented such as Covid-19 might evoke increased need to get away from a threat and heightened apprehension going into new situations. 

Freeze: For others, there may be a closing down of emotion and detachment from one’s inner experience. 

Sometimes, when flight or freeze responses are activated, we  don’t want to be pushed to talk about what we are experiencing. We need time to sort through our responses before sharing.  

This is especially important with Shock Trauma. We think it is important to get people to speak about their pain, but it is important not to add to the trauma by overloading the central nervous system. After 9-11, therapists in New York saw far too many people who had been forced to simply live through it again in the re-telling.

With trauma, or Shock Trauma, it is important to know how you respond to a threatening situation in order to manage your stress. Do you tend towards fight, flight, or freeze?  It is also helpful to notice the response style in those you try tare helping. 

Next Monday we will try to understand more about trauma and battle fatigue.



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