• Kayte Thomas

What if safety measures....just don’t feel so safe?

Before we start talking about today’s topic, I would like to make a clear distinction about what this post is addressing and what it is not addressing. Today’s topic is geared towards people who live in safe homes. If you live in an unsafe home (i.e., one in which there is physical, sexual, emotional, mental, or financial abuse) then it would be expected to feel unsafe as a normative response to an unsafe environment. If you need guidance on defining and understanding abusive situations, click HERE.

During this pandemic, some have been surprised by their reactions to safety measures such as staying inside and wearing masks. More than just the increase in anxiety addressed in last week’s post, people have noticed symptoms such as a sense of hypervigilence, claustrophobia-like feelings, or even panic attacks when staying the house or wearing a mask. What could be happening here?

First, it’s important to consider if there are any past experiences which might be triggering a bit of a trauma response for you. There are a variety of scenarios which could cause this. For example, did you live in an unsafe home in childhood? Or perhaps the neighbourhood you lived in was unsafe and you often had to stay indoors to avoid crime, gunshots, etc. Or maybe you were a “latchkey” kid and were just home alone a lot while your parents worked and found that time to be distressing. What if you lived through a wartime experience and had to remain inside frequently for safety? All of these things and more could be an underlying reason that you feel so uncomfortable right now, because your body and brain have a heightened sense of “danger” which is triggered simply by being confined to the house, even though your house is actually a safe place to be right now.

{An important note: Remember that for some children today, this pandemic may be the crisis which underlies responses they may have to other events later in life, so be aware that this may affect them as they grow as well.}

But what about those who feel significant anxiety when wearing a mask? Well, there are many potential causes of that as well. For someone who has experienced sexual assault or violence in which they felt they could not breathe or their mouth was covered, this could certainly trigger anxiety when something is placed over the face. Those who have lived through medical trauma and have either felt nervous when masks were being utilized for anesthesia or have simply felt that they were unable to breathe during any treatments may also feel fearful when wearing a mask. Simply having something over your face that feels as if it is restricting some of your airflow may trigger a fear response because of these or other past experiences.

So what to do about all of this? If you have identified a past incident which might be complicating the issue for you, then just the act of acknowledging where this sense of fear might be stemming from can have a powerful effect on your psyche. Trauma is stored in the body, and sometimes we have responses that don’t necessarily make sense right away because your body is “remembering” past fear. By realizing this, you can begin reminding yourself that you are safe as telling yourself this will encourage your brain and body to respond accordingly. Practice telling yourself “I am safe” regularly can help quite a bit. Other simple measures which may help include small changes such as opening windows and making sure there is lots of natural light in the home to counteract the sense that you are “stuck inside”. Finally, reminding yourself of the reason you are choosing to take these preventative actions can help you to feel more in control of the situation, and remind yourself that this is temporary also. Of course, trauma may need to be addressed in counseling in order to have support while learning and practicing new patterns of responding. There are several interventions which can help to reduce symptoms, so seeking out a professional to talk to during this time can help as well if you feel any of this is a significant issue.

But what if you have self-assessed and decided that there really isn’t something that is being retriggered by stay at home order and mask recommendations?

Well, then we have to consider that maybe it is a societal issue. Consider for a moment the amount of pressure we place on ourselves and others to be constantly achieving, constantly moving, always striving to do the next big thing! If our culture tells us that our value is only measured by what we are able to produce…what happens when we are asked to be still and essentially do nothing? It is likely to cause a deep sense of unease and a bit of an identity crisis. Ask yourself when the last time you have truly allowed yourself to rest has been. Do you place as much value on rest as you do activity? Culturally, we tend to view busy-ness as a badge of honour and the time spent relaxing or doing non-work activities as time wasted. This is not the case at all! We have to give ourselves permission to rest and relax. In fact, this is still doing something – it is prioritizing our well-being and ensuring that we are able to continue doing other activities and work as well.

It may help to view this time as an opportunity to learn about self-care and what makes you feel better in general. This does not mean that you have to rush to learn new skills or meet new goals; on the contrary it means that you can spend some time exploring what you enjoy doing just for yourself. Some may find that this includes an activity or hobby like exercising, painting, music, etc., while others may find that they need more time to take a nap or sit quietly listening to nature or engage in meditation practices. Being constantly busy acts as a distraction for many things – sometimes trauma, sometimes anxious thoughts, sometimes aspects of our lives which create discord or unhappiness – and when everything slows down and we are forced to pause, it can be very uncomfortable because we cannot ignore these things anymore. Spending time being mindful of how you feel physically, what your thoughts and internal dialogue are saying to you during this time, and the emotions that arise within you can provide important insight into yourself and your needs. Some may find that journaling helps with this process as well. Whatever you choose to do…..give yourself permission to let go of expectations, deadlines, and stressors for little while.

Take a little time just to breathe and be still. Be gentle with yourself, you're the only of you there is.

Be sure to let me know if you had any insights while reading this!

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