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The Draining Nature of Environmental Trauma

I first heard the phrase “environmental trauma” after 9/11 in reference to the sense of loss and despair felt by so many individuals geographically removed yet personally affected by reports of the tragedy. The concept has been used to describe the cumulative effect of tragic news stories, research revealing new threats to our health and safety, and, in general, new reasons to be afraid. Grug, the caveman father in The Croods, tried to protect his family with his signature line “never not be afraid,” but the movie tried to illustrate that this is no way to live. My hope is to validate the sense of unease many people are feeling and offer some reassurance and permission to struggle a little more in these exceptionally challenging times.

Some define anxiety as a pending sense of doom with no clear threat or cause. Picture a radar screen sweeping for threats you are sure will emerge but not sure when or from which direction. Our current public health crisis created this atmosphere on a global scale by prompting us to fear every door knob, cart handle, and human interaction. Many of us are experiencing unexpected fatigue, trouble maintaining concentration, and diminished motivation. We can normalize these struggles to some extent by recognizing how much energy we are putting into living each day. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman summarized our thought process into two parts, Type 1 thinking and Type 2 thinking. Type 1 thinking is our quick, inferential interaction with our environment when we are relaxed and dealing with familiar topics. Type 2 thinking is the focused concentration we use when taking tests or filling out forms. Type 2 thinking is taxing and limited. At some point we give up because there's nothing left, we are out of gas. Remember how you felt after many hours of testing in school or picture a marathon runner stopping in the last few miles. Our hyper-vigilant concern for what we touched, who we walked past, and what things we need to wipe down with disinfectant uses more of this focused concentration than we realize. Like a phone with too many apps open, we are draining our batteries many times faster than we did before the pandemic. This can easily confuse our conscious mind because in every other way it feels like we are simply working through some of the same routines and tasks. Finally, you don’t have to be an empath to sense the palpable fear around us. Those more emotionally attuned might recognize the specific expressions and emotions projected by others, while some of us might say things just seem “off.” Picture the last time you walked into a room immediately after friends or family had just had an argument. While they might not be yelling, you can still feel the tension in the air as you recognize dozens of nonverbal cues that scream “danger” at a subconscious level in your mind. Fear and pain are highly subjective concepts heavily influenced by our perceptions, and while we know we know we will survive without the eggs or toilet paper we hoped to find that day, our stability has taken a hit. The nervous looks, frantic gestures, and stiff demeanor of those around also offer what seems like confirming evidence that things are not okay. So if we recognize that life is more complicated and challenging during this unique time, we are more able to give ourselves permission to have a little less energy or motivation to get things done, knowing that we spent it somewhere else. If we remind ourselves that our fears are feelings and perceptions rather than reality, we can ground ourselves in the positive actions we can take advantage of now. Expectations determine disappointment, so setting realistic expectations of simply surviving a difficult time can offer reassurance that we are still okay and will be okay. Another word for that is hope. Matthew Gallagher, LCPC


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