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Pandemic Psychology

Overcoming the fight, flight, or freeze response in relation to the pandemic.

A number of years ago, I read two fascinating books written by a Russian psychiatrist, Dr. Olga Kharitidi, who was born in Siberia and worked in a Soviet-era State mental hospital. She was moved to study ancient indigenous shamanic traditions. Kharitidi wrote about the “spirit of trauma,” and how it can overtake one’s self, and detailed things she learned from ancient tools that had been passed down to native healers. 

It seems with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the world is immersed in a "spirit of trauma." Many people have fallen ill and, once recovered, continue to cope with perplexing lingering symptoms. Countless people have lost loved ones as a result of complications caused by the virus; many have had to close their businesses and many have lost their livelihoods.

Kharitidi wrote about how ancient cultures understood how life’s journey involves dangers, risks, and transitions that are innately traumatic by nature. The task for humans is to learn to manage the traumas that are inherent by the nature of life. We have a saying in the field of psychological traumatology: “Either you process the trauma, or the trauma will process you.” Traditionally, military and emergency workers have turned to spirits, i.e., alcohol, to attempt to process distressing, overwhelming events. We know that this approach often does not end well. The temporary dopaminereleased from the relief alcohol provides is only a cheap substitute for a naturally achieved peace of mind that comes from truly integrating trauma into one’s selfhood. 

We know that the emotions and memory of trauma has a way of becoming trapped in the tissue of our bodies. There is an electrical nature to the body and when faced with overwhelming stress, the body becomes adrenalized from neurochemicals released for fight, flight, or freeze responses. Without releasing and neutralizing these emergency neurochemicals, the limbic system can highjack higher cortical functions and we are then left living in a state of dread, dominated by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. If this persists, it leads to a state of organismic collapse, i.e., we become frozen in life. It can lead to symptoms of chronic fatigue, and many of the characteristics we identify with posttraumatic stress.

As I mention in my forthcoming book, Lady Gaga courageously discussed her experience of trauma from a sexual assault, and how this experience led to chronic pain issues. We know from somatic-based psychotherapies that the body has a memory. The language of that memory is sensation. It is often helpful to disrupt the verbal narrative of a trauma and drop into the realm of sensation where the body can tell its story. It is fascinating to see how the body will communicate when it is invited to tell its story through physical sensations. Without this processing, trauma can become trapped in our bodies’ cells and cut-off from the higher mental processing that would allow us the freedom to move forward. 

The world has a great deal of trauma processing to do in response to the global pandemic. We must draw on all of humanity's resources to make lemonade out of lemons. When I bemoaned the many traumas I encountered in my patients and in my own life, my training analyst, who was a Holocaust survivor, would often say, “Trauma is opportunity in worker’s clothing.” The enlightened attitude to trauma is that it will ultimately be revealed as a gift—albeit an often painful gift—that can lead us to a deeper understanding of love and compassion.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, the Minnesota infectious disease professor and public health expert, talks about how we as a society are dealing with pandemic fatigue and pandemic anger. I think many of us are also dealing with pandemic freeze. We know from Hans Selye’s adaptation to stress model that after dealing with an inescapable stress, a state of exhaustion and collapse follows. 

How do we manage this state of prolonged stress and uncertainty? Some of the basic tools of trauma-informed psychotherapy can assist. We can focus on creating a place of safety, practice self-care, and maintain positive relationships. All are crucial to mental health, a sense of well-being, and overall wellness.

Good self-care involves exercise and a healthy diet, as well as keeping one’s mind positively stimulated and engaged. Meditation and yoga are excellent ancient tools that have served humanity for centuries. Staying positive and remembering that we will get through this will enhance our immune system’s response, while we continue to take all the common-sense directives to avoid infection. It is also a time to ramp up our actions of kindness, which will also boost our own immune system as well as the immune systems of those we touch through our acts of love and care.


Suggested Reading

Olga Kharitidi, MD (1997). Entering the Circle. The Secrets of Ancient Siberian Wisdom Discovered by a Russian Psychiatrist. Sausalito, CA: Gloria Press.

Ibid. (2003). Master of Lucid Dreams: In the Heart of Asia, a Russian Psychiatrist Learns How to Heal the Spirit of Trauma. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads.

James F. Zender, PhD (2020). Recovering from Your Car Accident.  The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.


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