When people think about trauma, they usually think about one big life-changing experience, usually associated with death. Christina Whitton, a licensed family and marriage counselor who specializes in treating patients with system-involved (adoption and foster care systems) trauma, says that’s not quite accurate. There are what she calls “little T” traumas, the small repeated experiences – like a parent not smiling at a child, and that child eventually growing into an adult with low self-esteem – and big traumas: death, physical abuse, etc.
Then there is collective trauma. Enter Covid-19, an invisible respiratory disease that has had life-altering effects for everyone. Whitton, who has a private practice in Monterey, says the common thread of trauma is loss: “Loss of routine, loss of a job, loss of how you do that job – it’s all loss, and that’s traumatic. Even everyday things like not seeing your barista smile when you’re picking up your morning coffee because they’re all wearing masks.”
Whitton spoke to the Weekly about how to take care of one’s mental health during Covid-19.
Weekly: How do you deal with isolation?
Whitton: There’s a lot of room for self-compassion, knowing that it’s hard and this is a time that just sucks for everyone and that’s OK. I think we then need to change the thermometer of expectation – it’s OK that we’re doing less.
Reaching out to a friend or family member can help, even if it’s just a phone call. Call your friend and talk about a movie. Sure, you’re not both going to the movies together but you can review it like you saw it together. It’s making sure to maintain the social aspect despite not being able to do the thing together.
How do we get away from our screens?
It’s absolutely important to take breaks from your screen. Add touches of nature to your life. That could mean walking around your neighborhood and paying attention more. Are the colors different? Is there a different bug in that patch of dirt? You don’t have to go far to do some of these things. Maybe you’re just buying a new plant or hanging up a picture of nature.
It’s common that people live in overcrowded conditions in Monterey County, so people may not have the space to be on their own. How do you approach that?
For kids what we do is just create a little fort, right on their bed. Even if it’s not their own room, they can have this space to themselves where they can breathe, and just have a moment. Sometimes we’ll just stomp it out – some people need to let some energy out to release that tension. It could be push-ups on the wall, or jump rope. Anything physical is good, so long as it’s not hurting anyone.
How do you create consistency during the pandemic?
It’s all about routine and structure. Thinking about people losing sleep, people usually say, “I need to get up at this time.” Reframe that into, “Can I get to bed at 10pm so I’m not tired in the morning?” Maybe instead of setting an alarm for getting up, you’re setting an alarm to go to sleep. Maybe it’s both.
Have an hour-long window of wind-down time – make some tea, color in your coloring book, journal or sit and cuddle with your kids before bed – to strengthen that nighttime routine. It’s the same for all routines: create little signifiers that reinforce those neural pathways.
I’d also include transition periods. If you don’t have a commute to work anymore, maybe you’re doing a 15-minute walk around your neighborhood. There’s your commute. For me, it’s my morning coffee. When I brew my coffee, I’m transitioning into work. Then I pour it into what I call my “work mug,” and it’s there on my desk so I know what time it is.
How do you come out of the pandemic not hating your household?
Don’t make your family guess what you need; they’re not in your thoughts. You need to be clear about what you expect from other people. You’re not responsible for how people react, but you are responsible for how you communicate your own feelings. So before blowing up in a conversation, find ways to regulate yourself. Drink some water, take a walk or go outside and say you’ll finish the conversation. Breaks are OK.
Also, remember that one person cannot meet all your needs. Men generally tend to be great problem solvers, but if you tell your husband everything, that’s a lot of pressure on him. Maybe go to your friend or sister first. It’s a lot of self-work creating boundaries.