Warning: Traumatizing Story Coming.
In 2006, we had an earthquake in our family. I had just finished six weeks in Costa Rica studying tropical disease and working in community clinics and hospitals. I was over the moon about having my family meet me for Christmas on the beach and also to have my dad back in CR where he was a Peace Corps volunteer. From what he told us he was a saint of Guapiles, a small town of the country and after Alzheimer’s took over his brain, his time there was one of his dominating stories.
December 19th, my family arrived, three kiddos and my parents. We had a lovely dinner and checked into our hotel, excited about our adventure. The hotel was open air and consisted of a big house with a community kitchen and about 10 rooms with flimsy, individual wooden doors. After sleeping for a few hours, a group of hooded men came in with guns and assaulted us. I had just spent six weeks practicing medicine and thought I heard someone having a seizure. I left my bedroom, where my mom and dad were sleeping and in my liminal space, half awake, half in dream land ran up the stairs to see if I could help. What I found was not what I expected and to this day it feels surreal. I attempted to run down the stairs and a man grabbed me by the back of my shirt and threw me back into the room. From there I ‘froze’, blacked out and when I came to, when my mind determined I was safe, I took action.
I ran to my parents room, my kiddos room, everyone was alive, so I ran to a couple more rooms and alerted people that they were gone. I heard a mumble from the owners room and a dog barking. I let his dog out of the bathroom and cut his zip-tie ‘handcuffs’. He called the cops and after, I asked to use his phone. I called my classmate whose husband was working for US Airways. She got us six tickets, my family packed whatever they felt they needed. The cops showed up, they asked some questions, I don’t really remember the logistics, but I know they came. I asked the hotel owner drove me to my host families home. We arrived around 4 am, I packed whatever I could, said goodbye to my classmate, goodbye to my host mom, sister and baby girl. We were on our way to the airport less than 24 hours after my family had arrived. We landed in Phoenix, rented a car, my mom and I drove us to El Paso. We arrived to my sisters house, collapsed on the floor so grateful to be home and safe, but also so scarred and scared.
Fear, stress, violence, trauma all lead to a sympathetic reaction, a ‘fight, flight, freeze or fawn’ reaction. In those moments after I realized it was safe to move, all my mind wanted to do was flee its way to safety. And it did. I didn’t stop to think about what this abrupt departure meant for my PA degree. I didn’t call my preceptor or the doctors I worked with or the school that brought me there. I didn’t think about calling my friend who had come to Costa Rica from Phoenix to spend Christmas with us. I didn’t think about canceling the beach house reservation or the surfing or hiking excursions I had prepaid for. There was no logical action or reason coming through me. I had one mission and one mission only, to get our family to safety.
My reptilian brain did its job and it did so perfectly. Of course it did, it has centuries of practice.
But after the incident, I was what many would call a ‘mess’. Every Hispanic looking man in a hooded sweatshirt set me off. I had my ER rotation right after and every yell, scream or alert would send me into a tizzy. I’ll explain what was happening as I believe that this moment in time, this virus and quarantine has caused a collective trauma. And this is very typical of people who have been traumatized, to any degree.
So scientifically and medically, my brain was in a hypervigilant state. I was always anticipating another ‘trigger’ in a human, a yell, an emergency alert. When this happens, we respond similarly to people who have a phobia. The activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, precuneus and visual cortex is lowered. These ares of the brain are integral for regulation of emotions, they allow us to stay level-headed and rational. Decreased activities in this area suggests a reduced ability to keep fearful emotions from running our lives.
And that is what I believe is happening right now around the world. The fear of contracting the virus and dying or potentially asymptomatically shedding the virus to someone ‘vulnerable’ and causing death is terrifying. The fear started early on, when people were dying so rapidly at increased numbers from this ‘highly contagious novel virus’. The thought of a pandemic is horrifying, especially if you look at the history of how they work. Wiping out millions of people, through suffocation in this case, in one swift wave is a chilling prospect. Traumatic and terrifying. All your mind wants to do is keep you safe and protected, keep your loved ones safe and protected, and of course, keep all of humanity safe and protected.
So we were told to take action or rather inaction. We were told to “Shelter-in-place”, which by the way was historically used for an active shooter or a bomb, but allows imprinting of the trauma when using phrases that powerfully. We were told to stay away from each other, more trauma being pressed into our brains. Wear masks. Believe that we are inherently harmful to one another from being physically present. Clean and disinfect everything, though studies show that there are on average 46,000 viruses indoors and on average 46,000 viruses in outdoor air.
All things to keep our brains in ‘fight, flight, freeze or fawn’.
Then each and everyday, we get our fears confirmed and validated as the numbers rise (according to mainstream media, front page of CDC, but not if you actually dig and see the real numbers). We just stay on sympathetic mode and once we’re there, it feels impossible to fade back to neutral or open or calm. Its challenging to relax and open up to any possibilities that question your deeply imprinted narrative. So you stick to what you know, you feel into the familiar because as always, the familiar is safe and cozy. Instead of going outside, breathing fresh air (the way respiratory diseases have been fought since the dawn of time), moving and sitting in nature, communing with others, laughing and remembering our fortune to hold space on this beautiful planet, we sit in front of screens and computers watching the world ‘die’. And it feels so heavy to the point that we can’t find a way out.
The only way is through. For me personally, my brain calmed enough to be around people with hoodies, in the ER, around screams and yelling and keeping it cool. And once I did, I became a more understanding PA. I was better able to hold space for my patients as they processed their fears around illness and disease. It even led me to start doing ‘spa days for the underserved’ where I gave them the power to control their nervous system through breath, prayer, heart-mind coherence, mindset shifts and seeing them at their highest self from beginning to end.
And I believe humanity will too. I see a stronger, more understanding, kinder, confident and aligned collective. Slowed down and not needing to jump and react at every bend, but rather take a deep breath and respond mindfully through their heart and felt-sense.
My promise is to return to what I was doing before, daily meditations and sending love to calm nervous systems. I say that today and promise to deliver for as long as I can.
What other ways can you calm the nervous system and turn up the parasympathetic?
Thank you for reading.