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21 June 2020

Why a ‘Winter of Trauma’ is coming

PTSD caused by lockdown will be a reality for millions – but could new therapies offer a solution?

It’s a funny old thing, the human mind. We’re often told to “toughen up” or “get on with it” in the face of adversity, and yet study after study has shown how fragile our mental wellbeing is and how easily it can be dented.

Anyone with even a passing interest in psychology will know that the grown-ups we become are shaped in so many ways by the things that happened to us as children. The school bully who always caught up with you after school can leave the adult you with strange feelings of anxiety every 4pm.

Perhaps public speaking is your nemesis, all because of a disastrous presentation you made in History class. Or maybe you can trace your feelings of low self-esteem back to a critical parent.

The coronavirus crisis has been a colossal – unprecedented – source of worry for vast swathes of the planet. Lockdown has piled on stress after stress. If you’ve experienced any of the following, then rest assured that it’s a sensation that will also have been felt by millions:

  • Feeling scared of dying – either yourself or loved ones.
  • Feeling anger over the approach to the lockdown of others: anything from idiotic rule-breakers to noisy neighbours.
  • Money, work and health concerns.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or that, by not helping others, you have let everyone down.
  • Struggling to cope with living in close proximity to other people.
  • Missing the things that you normal rely on to unwind or enjoy life, such as the gym, restaurants or social engagements.
  • Concerns about food shortages or not being able to buy things you want.

I could go on. Relatively few of us, I believe, will have completely escaped some form of stress that has arisen out of the lockdown, and for many people, a combination of these stressful things will end up being bundled together into something more serious still: trauma.

Clinically speaking, trauma can be defined as “severe emotional stress caused by an experience.” Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is actually not that uncommon, and while typically mentioned when talking about soldiers who have been through something horrific or survivors of serious accidents/crime, I think it’s equally true that it can be applied to many millions of people who are coming out of lockdown.

It might not have been a prison sentence, but the fact remains that for two months we were all effectively locked up – and it’s not over yet. If that’s not a traumatic experience, I don’t know what is.

A kind of grief

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, we can even go so far as to describe some of what we are feeling right now as grief. David Kessler, an expert on the subject, said that we’re feeling grief because we feel that the world we knew has changed.

Kessler said: “We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realise things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed.”

The loss of normalcy, the fear of economic toll and the loss of connection are all hitting us, he says, and we’re grieving.

On top of this, Kessler adds that we’re feeling a kind of “anticipatory grief” that is caused by an uncertain future. It’s actually a sensation that is usually experienced, he says, when we’re anticipating death. When we know there is something scary out there.

A mass experiment

The World Economic Forum has described the lockdown as “the world’s biggest psychological experiment” and, it says, we will all pay the price. Around four billion people were involved in the lockdown, and the WEF states that it will result in an epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism in the workplace in the second half of the year.

They cite a study written about in The Lancet of Chinese citizens who had been through lockdown: it found that 28 per cent of them warranted a diagnosis of trauma-related mental health disorder. If 28 per cent of the UK were to be similarly diagnosed, that would be around 18.6 million people in need of help.

We do, of course, all have different levels of resilience. And while many people will come out of this unscathed, the predictions are that there will be a devastating number of people on the trauma spectrum.

The especially at-risk

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine recently spoke of how the mental health of people with pre-existing medical, psychiatric or substance abuse problems is especially at risk of being badly affected by the pandemic. Health care providers are vulnerable too, given their level of exposure to the chaos that Covid-19 has wreaked upon our hospitals and care homes.

The NEJM article cited a study which found that mass home-confinement measures revealed a variety of emotional outcomes, including stress, depression, irritability, insomnia, fear, confusion, anger, frustration and boredom.

The Lancet, meanwhile, has found – unsurprisingly – that the longer the quarantine, the less positive the outcome in terms of mental health. The current lockdown, of course, has been the longest mass quarantine in modern history.

In one study they looked at (there have been multiple incidents that resulted in quarantine over the years), the effect of being quarantined was found to be a predictor of post-traumatic stress symptoms in hospital staff as much as three years later.

Among people with a history of mental illness, the most common time for anxiety to kick in post-quarantine was 4-6 months. Even the stigma of being implicated in an outbreak can take its toll. Hospital staff interviewed after previous outbreaks who had been through quarantine often felt rejected by people in their communities.

Already, the psychological results of the Covid-19 lockdown are starting to trickle through. In May of this year, the Guardian reported that a new survey by Italy’s Order of Psychologists found that 80 per cent of Italians said they now needed psychological support.

The UN is leading the call for help for those most affected by coronavirus-related stress, and have urged the international community to do much more to protect all those facing mounting mental pressures.

A new normal

If your own mental health has been affected by the virus, reading the above will hopefully have illustrated that your situation is not unusual.

The fact that so many people have been affected should help show that what you’re going through is a normal – if unwanted – response to such a difficult point in our history.

Will things get better? Most people seem to think so – though that may take some time, and things could become more challenging before they start to improve. The important thing now is to take whatever practical steps you can to minimise any effects on your mental health.

Because there are things you can do. Right now, at home. On a practical, day-to-day level, Mindfulness, deep-breathing exercises, positivity and social interactions with people you care about can have a big impact.

Hypnotherapy can help, too. Since the lockdown, my hypnotherapy practice in London has been sidelined for Skype and Zoom-based consultations from my home, and there have been multiple successful outcomes.

I had already been doing virtual treatment sessions like this for some clients for several years, and I have not observed any significant differences between digital treatments of this kind and those that take place in a face-to-face setting.

In short, the proven techniques we use at Fix My Mind to help people deal with stress, phobias and trauma can equally be done during a live video consultation. It works. And some of the techniques we use are appropriate as self-help tools, too.

The most powerful one that can be tried at home is called Havening. I have used this many times on clients, and it has an excellent success rate. You will find lots more information about it elsewhere on this website, but in terms of how to use it, I’m happy to share it with you now.

Please note, it does require a leap of faith, as it sounds rather bizarre…

The Havening touch

To begin, you close your eyes and visualise whatever it is that is causing you stress. If it is money issues, for example, you would try and recreate the sensation of anxiety that you feel when your money woes are at their most acute.

Havening then ‘de-links’ the negative feelings you associate with this issue, so that the next time you encounter money woes in a real-life setting, you don’t automatically stumble into the same emotional response.

The act of Havening involves crossing your arms and stroking downwards at a rate of one stroke per second. Stop thinking about the traumatic event, clear your mind and notice the stroking, which can be added to by humming a happy song, or counting backwards. These help to distract the mind.

There are a number of different ways in which Havening can be used, including one method in which you repeat the sensation you want to feel, spoken out loud during the downward stroke of the arms – for example, “I am calm” or “I am OK” or “I will recover”.

When treating clients, trauma can often be relieved of symptoms in just one or two sessions, and Havening is a key tool in the clinical hypnotherapist’s arsenal.

A timely response

Taking time out to try and work on your mental health is important, not least when the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reports that “some people who have to contend with significant challenges, moral or traumatic, experience a degree of Post-Traumatic Growth” when they are supported during a mental health crisis.

Post-Traumatic Growth? It means that they experienced an improvement in their psychological resilience, esteem and values, according to the BMJ. In order to achieve this positive state, however, the traumatic event must not be allowed to drag us into despair. This is where help, self-help included, can play its part.

In an article about post-traumatic growth on the Body + Soul website, we’re told that rather than filling our lives with incessant activity and constantly rushing into the future, we can expect to live each day to the fullest. That’s Post-Traumatic Growth in action.

I have been helping people to neutralise their traumatic memories for many years, and I can attest that, during follow-up conversations, some clients have told me about their stronger, more resilient mindset.

By fixing your own mind, and you might find yourself in an even better place than you were before your trauma started.

A digital revolution

Given the vast demand on the nation’s mental health care resources in the coming years, I believe that digital consultations – using techniques like Havening and others, such as EMDR – are the future. They will enable people to regain control of their life in one or two sessions – as opposed to other methods that can take months.

In fact, I believe that technology may once again be the great enabler as we set out to fight the impending mental health crisis – just as it has proven to be in so many other situations.

The right tools that can ‘walk’ people through the treatment they need and can clearly demonstrate Havening and other methods in action may yet take therapy from the ‘one-to-one’ model to that of ‘one-to-many’.

That’s for the future. For now, take some comfort in the fact that whatever you’re going through, you’re not alone – and that there are proven ways to turn off the stress, negative thoughts and anxiety.

And please don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you would like a free consultation, or a chat about how hypnotherapy and the various tools I have at my disposal might help to quickly put you in a happier place.

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