I haven’t stopped knocking on wood and crossing my fingers since the CDC first suggested we’re seeing the beginning of the end of COVID-19's grip on the world.
I’m extremely grateful to now be fully vaccinated, and while part of me wants to launch myself into a full-on crowd surf without a mask in sight, I’m still carrying a lot of anxiety around finding yet another “new normal.” Not only that, I’m still trying to process the last 14 months.
Whitney Norris is a licensed professional counselor and trauma therapist and co-founder and CFO of Little Rock Counseling & Wellness. I’m lucky to call her a close friend, and we're all lucky she agreed to share some of her wisdom with us on the topic of trauma and the path to betterment in the wake of a global pandemic.
So the good news is vaccinations are on the rise and there's some sort of normalcy on the horizon, but news outlets and the like are also bringing up the idea of “mass trauma.” What are your thoughts on this topic taking over our timelines?
To be completely honest, I’ve had very mixed reactions to the media’s focus on the idea that we’re experiencing “mass” or “collective” trauma through all this. On one hand, I want to celebrate the fact that people are thinking about the impact of trauma and asking proactive questions about what can be done about it. Collective trauma can and does have a lasting impact on groups and cultures, and it’s a really important topic to consider.
On the other, I want to push back against any sense of panic or fear mongering and remind us all that trauma for any of us, in some sense, is trauma for all of us. Yes, the pandemic is serving as a monsoon into our sea of collective trauma, and we will see the impact of that in big and small ways. But every day there are people all around us experiencing trauma, and this isn’t the first time we’ve experienced it collectively either.
Trauma isn’t new, perhaps we’re just paying more attention right now. Think about 9/11 or the mass trauma inflicted on people of color by systemic racism and our country’s history of enslavement. Or the overwhelming number of kids we have in the foster care system.
The good news is we know how this heals. We metabolize and heal from our own trauma, and then do everything we can to help others in our community do the same, including those who don’t have the same privileged access to resources we do. We’ll need to continue to do that over and over, and that’s how healing happens, on an individual and a collective level.
Glennon Doyle once said it well, “Just do the next right thing one thing at a time. That’ll take you all the way home.” The path toward healing isn’t quick or easy, but people have been engaging in this process individually and collectively for centuries.
There are many who, despite not having had to cope with serious illness or the loss of a loved one or job due to COVID-19, are still experiencing pandemic-related depression, along with guilt for feeling those feelings in the first place. What advice do you have for them?
First, I want to normalize that. You’re asking me that question because it’s a common response that people are having and you’re right. I might also add that, as my hero Brené Brown would say, that sounds like shame, not guilt, since there’s nothing inherently wrong with experiencing feelings. In those moments when we catch ourselves in a stance of shame, we need empathy, not judgment, including self-judgment.
Second, I might go a step further and say, “Well, of course you feel depressed.” Sure, the pandemic has impacted us all differently, but no one is getting out of this unscathed. I would argue that at least some depression symptoms are the norm, not the exception, in this scenario. This is a huge reason why the pandemic has resulted in so many people going to therapy for the first time and has so many more people talking openly about mental health and wellness. You are far from alone.
What are some red flags to look out for in our own behavior and/or in loved ones?
This is a great question, but also really tough to answer. There are some somewhat universal red flags like major personality changes, being more isolated and engaging in more numbing behaviors. But, to some extent, we all have our own unique red flags.
People who work with addictions encourage people to be aware of their warning signs that they're slipping away from being okay well before they start engaging in any behaviors they may eventually regret.
For me, a great and easy-to-detect warning sign is when whatever bag I'm carrying starts to get really messy. It's as simple as that. I also have a friend who I'd be worried about if her bag was ever neat and clean. So it's important to know your own warning signs, no matter how small, and if we really give it some thought, they usually aren't too difficult to find.
And if you want to know more about how to recognize this in loved ones, just ask them. For me, this has led to some really beautiful conversations where I've learned important things about people I care about that I might have never known otherwise.
And what are some practices we can employ to help process or course-correct?
First, I would encourage finding a good therapist. I'm well aware that a therapist recommending therapy may elicit some eye rolls, but the reality for me is I wouldn't be in the business I'm in if I didn't truly believe in the power of the work. My own therapy has been incredibly helpful to me over the years while, for nearly a decade, I've also gotten a front row seat to see how it can provide peace and healing to people with all kinds of different backgrounds.
Second, I would encourage you to move more. As a whole, we've become even more sedentary during the pandemic, and research shows this is the opposite of what we need when under stress to prevent complete burnout.
On that note, if you're looking for something new to read or listen to, I would highly recommend "Burnout" by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. They cover this topic incredibly well and it all feels especially relevant now.
More than a year into a global pandemic, what’s one thing you hope people keep in mind?
That to struggle is to be human and we weren’t meant to do this alone. I don’t just mean that we’re not meant to survive global disasters alone, I mean we’re not meant to do life alone. The massive amounts of collective stress happening right now are only magnifying the established fact that we’re built to need people.
Again, that part isn’t new. Sometimes we can just be a little reluctant to embrace it.