We are living through a time of widespread illness, social and political unrest, economic fractures, and broken safety nets. Whether each of us experiences the ravages of this time close to home or as part of a larger circle, the symptoms of collective trauma are widespread. Many of these symptoms — feeling overwhelmed, anxious, fatigued — may be familiar. One deserves special mention: numbness. As a psychiatrist who has considerable experience treating refugees suffering from trauma, and an author and teacher who works with collective trauma, we have learned a great deal about how numbness affects us all.
Compounding our challenges are our news viewing habits. During times of uncertainty, we are each, in our own way, experiencing vulnerability. Fears that had lain dormant for years may be activated, causing low-grade stress or full-blown anxiety. These fears are exacerbated by what might be called the “toxic trauma story” churned out by mainstream news channels.
When a situation is overwhelming, your body protects itself by entering a “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. Our responses to the pandemic and continuous uncertainty, fueled by doomscrolling and newsfeeds, range from hyperactivation (fight or flight) to numbness (freeze). While the three Fs refer to the body’s stress response in the moment, these reactions can continue long after exposure to trauma.
In medical terms, numbness occurs when nerves are damaged, leading to partial or total loss of sensation in the body. We can also describe numbness related to our psychological well-being: a lack of enthusiasm and interest in life, a sense of apathy and indifference. The spectrum ranges from mild apathy to disassociation to a heavy, weighty lethargy, which is often a symptom of severe depression. “Freeze” refers to a paralyzed or frozen state associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.
Collective numbness can surface as epidemic substance misuse; food, sex, or entertainment addiction; media overuse; or in other ways. It reveals itself as a collective shutting-down to crisis, which can derail healing.
As individuals, we can spend more time practicing self-care, as outlined in the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma toolkit. For example, take time to reflect on the resources and sources of support you have in your life. Spend quality time with family, and if possible, in nature. Set boundaries on news devices to give your nervous system a chance to relax. Turn off your notifications, leave your phone far from your bedroom at night, and consider periodic news fasts to give your system a full recharge.
This is an excerpt from an article that appears on the Harvard Health Publishing website.