Andy Ryan is Head of Recovery Services at Changing Lives. Here, he shares his reflections on the impact of trauma on our mental health.

As we come to the end of mental health awareness week, I want to talk about a few things as I have experienced them and see them. Anything we do locally, nationally and internationally to take time to reflect on our mental health is crucial in helping to develop greater awareness in a healthy and mindful way. Now more than ever it is critical that we pay attention to our own and others’ mental health, as communities across the world try to manage and make meaning of a global pandemic and all the stressors this brings with it.

In recent weeks I have been reminded of information from my training, on the role that cortisol plays in the body during stressful times. I have always linked this to developmental trauma. My understanding of developmental trauma is that this is a life-long process and refers to both events experienced and the way in which we adapt to these. It is a whole person, interpersonal, intergenerational approach to understanding and supporting people, families and communities.

Stress responses

The Mayo Clinic has highlighted the impact of long-term activation of the stress response system. The prolonged impact of increased levels of cortisol can lead to wide-ranging health issues.

The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

That’s why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with your life stressors.

Many of us will have experienced stress as we live through a pandemic. There are lots of things happening that not only cause specific moments of stress, but due to the nature of a pandemic, are staying with us for a prolonged period of time. We are unable to resolve this stress, connect with people in order to heal, or we may be experiencing multiple stressful events.

Within the sector I work in, I have seen and heard of rough sleepers having their world turned upside down by being moved into hotels; people worrying about health needs and accessing support; loved ones lost; increase in reports of abuse; jobs lost; income impacted; isolation…..this list is endless and all without a fixed understanding of when this ends. This is casting many people into the abyss of the unknown.

This is not an attempt at painting a picture of a post-apocalyptic world because I’m aware and have people telling me on a daily basis about the potential and positives being experienced in this period of uncertainty. We do, however, need need to be mindful of thinking about how we respond to it.

If we think about John Bowlby and his work on a secure base, it is easy to see that whatever the ’secure base’ was for you or me, it has been disturbed by recent events. If the stress levels are high and elongated through a pandemic this becomes less a traumatic event and more a traumatic process – one where we don’t have the usual support and structure around us to help us process it.  This already is (and will continue to) impact our mental health and well-being, both in the here and now and for whatever we face next.

I am already hearing people talk about ‘what if this happens again’. This is form of projected trauma and we must consider what impact this will have on our collective mental health.

Be Kind – A relational way forward

This, for me, is why the message ‘kindness matters’ during mental health awareness week is so important: two small words that will mean so much for us all moving forward as we recover, process, make meaning and collectively help each other to heal.

As a relational psychotherapist I am draw to Allan Schore’s work on affect regulation and Sheldon Cashdon’s work on object relations. This refers to how we connect as human beings to help each other make meaning and regulate the way we feel, or in the context of a pandemic – regulation of the stress response system. Plenty has been written about the importance of the relationship in all we do in life; this is why being kind is important.

Kindness is the open door for connection, the way we validate each other. It is an acknowledgement and grounding experience of our humanness and if we connect through kindness we can help each other to be present in the moment, to feel connected with ourselves and each other and challenge our own frame of mind. In these relational moments of connectedness we are more inclined to feel safe and secure, which is what we need to begin to understand, form narrative and make meaning of how we have been impacted.

For many of the people we support at Changing Lives, the stresses and worries that the pandemic has brought is layered on top of the things that were happening in their lives before. For many people who have experienced problems with addiction, abuse, rough sleeping, or have already experienced isolation for many reasons, there is a level of dissociation that exists already – a response to existing trauma that allows someone to tolerate the existential challenges faced both internally and externally every day. The added stresses and will only add to the adaptive disassociation and despair felt.

We will not know the full impact of the pandemic for many more months, but we must be ready – with kindness and compassion – to respond to the multilayered adaptation to these events and how this is for people. Feelings of loneliness, despair or disassociation are a natural response to the trauma we are collectively experiencing. My advice, to myself and others, is to remain curious not critical, through kindness.

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