Trauma is an automatic protective response to an event (or a series of events) that it perceives as potentially dangerous (Menakem 2017), a natural response to often unnatural events — such as rape, gun violence, war, racist acts, poverty, and abuse. Trauma leaves “traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems” (Van Der Kolk 2014).
For our community, traumatic stress pervades all aspects of life. 85% of our after-school children report worrying about their families a lot. With high rates of violence and poverty, the experience of intense stress is, for many, chronic, ongoing, and acute. During COVID-19, the fear and crisis-mode of a pandemic exacerbate existing traumas and mental health issues.
We’re experiencing a collective trauma during this virus, the storm around us. But we’re not all in the same boat. Social isolation, economic uncertainty, and loss are difficult for all of us, and this situation won’t last forever. But we’re scared of what this time means for our community — for psychological safety as well as physical safety.
Social Isolation and Connection
During this and any crisis, we rely on resilience, our individual and shared methods of survival. Everyone’s capacity is lowered during stressful events. We all struggle from boredom and fatigue, procrastination and loneliness. But pre-existing stressors mean some people have lower capacities upon entering this crisis to handle their past trauma, let alone the current one. Trauma creates an additional risk factor; when you have trauma to handle, periods of intense isolation and stress can be dangerous and even deadly. “It is predicted that around 68,000 American lives may be lost to deaths of despair — deaths related to drug or alcohol abuse or suicide” due to the social and economic impacts of the pandemic (Robert Graham Center for Poilcy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care).
There are many tools people can use to cope with and heal trauma, and these tools often differ according to culture, location, and personal experience. But one tool is consistent across groups of people: connection with others. Safe, healthy connections and a feeling of belonging in a community can help us immensely heal our trauma. Connection tells us we aren’t alone in our pain. Connection tells us we don’t have to carry the weight of our pasts by ourselves, that we have a support system to lean on. Ironically, feelings of isolation and distrust in others are common symptoms of trauma. Stuck in the fight/flight/freeze response, it can be difficult to be vulnerable enough to form authentic human connections, to tell our story, to ask for help. We might tell ourselves that no one understands us, no one could possibly have gone through what we’ve gone through. We might tell ourselves we’re safer on our own and that others can’t be trusted. We might enter into the same unhealthy relationship patterns over and over, seeking help from the wrong sources. This response is a completely understandable, but ultimately harmful, response to intense pain. Keeping to ourselves and staying away from others actually compounds our trauma, while connection and love heal us.
There are already so many barriers to healthy social connection when dealing with trauma, and during this crisis, social distancing practices have become yet another factor. Social distancing is keeping us safe now, and that’s critical, but we also must recognize the effects of isolation on our psychological well being. The life-saving hugs, dance parties, communal drumming circles, shared meals, group worship, and healing circles are no longer available as a coping tool.
Coping During COVID
During Covid-19, connection takes new forms. Sharing is all online now. And for the community we serve, online connection is either inaccessible or contains just a small portion of the neighbors that previously might have supported you through tough moments. We’ve gotten calls over the past 2 months from our neighbors not just asking for food and cleaning supplies, but desperately needing a hug, missing the space of the Peace House, feeling alone. We are working hard to hold space for our neighbors and maintain a sense of community even while we’re apart, but nothing replaces the comfort of being truly together.
In addition to our frontline response, we’ve launched virtual wellness programming:
- Daily: prayer circles by phone, remote tutoring for children by phone and zoom, wellness check ins by phone with community wellness workers and a clinical intern
- Weekly: children’s wellness checks with an art therapist by phone, children’s yoga by Zoom, children’s art projects facilitated on YouTube, sound healing meditations on YouTube, one-on-one telemedicine and health education calls
- Monthly: healing circles and open mics by zoom, social justice book club by zoom, supportive programs (such as DJ dance sessions) on Instagram and Facebook
So far, we’ve supported our community with:
- 2,726 daily check-in calls to assess needs, provide emotional support, and connect
- 464 telemedicine calls by a nurse, doctor, or social worker
- 144 hours of remote children’s tutoring
- 13 prayer circles by phone
- 7 sound healing, yoga, and other wellness sessions
- 4 online healing circles and open mics attended by 40 total people, including both Englewood residents and our greater I Grow Chicago family
Resilience comes from having no choice but to survive, finding the best way to move forward and keep you and yours safe. Our community is resilient. We are resilient. We will be together again one day, hugging and laughing at the Peace House. And until then, we will be checking in on our neighbors, day after day, making sure our neighbors know that no one is ever truly alone.