An article is making its way around on social media claiming that staying calm during a crisis is a trauma response. I’ve spoken with a few clients on this topic as well as we learn together how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ll be honest, I did not bother reading the article. It did not seem worth my energy. However, with the topic coming up repeatedly, I thought I’d share my perspective.
So, is it a sign of a trauma response if you stay calm during a crisis?
My short answer--- absolutely not. That’s ridiculous.
But, to expand on this, I’ll give you my long answer as well.
The 4 Ts.
There are 4 standard trauma responses-- fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. In times like now, where we are collectively facing an uncertain future, and one that brings up feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, pain, fears, and many other emotions, it is expected that humanity is collectively facing a traumatic experience.
It would be reasonable to expect that many people are responding to this crisis with one of those trauma responses. My guess is that most people who are in trauma response mode are either in flight or freeze. Since we can’t really fight our way against the virus, and fawning would not be beneficial in preventing harm by the virus, the only two logical responses are flight and freeze.
A person who is in a flight trauma response tends to use perfectionism, workaholism, and obsessions as a distraction and as a way to run from what they are fearful of facing. In the COVID-19 pandemic, it is completely understandable that one would not want to face our reality-- it is terrifying. The problem with being in a flight response during a time like this is that we cannot run from reality and if we are not present and taking necessary precautions, we could be inadvertently making things much, much worse.
A person who is in a freeze trauma response is avoiding facing reality too, but in a much different way. A freeze response tends to look like someone who is checking out and shutting down. They may sleep a lot more than normal. They may zone out and do nothing but sit on the couch and watch TV all day and night. They might space out, especially when talking about a difficult topic. Although we don’t often label it this way, spacing out is a form of dissociation. Dissociation is a way for our brain to disconnect from the pain and suffering when it feels too intense. Just as with the flight response, it would not be surprising that many, many people are freezing during this pandemic because feeling powerless to stop it from taking the ones we love or ourselves would feel too overwhelming.
I would guess that those who are minimizing and denying the reality of this pandemic are likely having some form of freeze response. Keeping on as if nothing is different is a way of checking out to avoid the intensity of the feelings bubbling up beneath the surface. Fear is a powerful motivator for avoidance and denial.
I assume that whoever wrote the article about people staying calm as a trauma response is likely confusing a calm state of being with a freeze response. I could see how that mistake could be made. To the untrained eye, someone who is dissociating may appear to just not be upset about what is happening around them. However, there is a major difference between having a freeze response and being calm.
Staying calm during a crisis would require a person staying present in the situation. It would entail a person being able to make observations about their surroundings, have a clear and complex thought process, make reasonable decisions, and communicate clearly. These skills are healthy responses during a crisis and often take a lot of training in self-regulation for a person to be successful.
A person who is experiencing a freeze trauma response would not be capable of doing any of those things. When our brain goes into a trauma response, we experience sympathetic nervous system dominance, which is just a fancy way of saying that the part of our brain that is focused on keeping us alive takes over. That part of our brain hijacks all of our energy and focuses on the 4 Fs-- fighting, flighting, freezing, or fawning.
Because our brain is hijacked in this way, the other parts of our brain that operate complex thought, future orientation, planning, and communication skills all shut down. Our instinctual brain decides, when we are in a trauma response, that we don’t need to communicate clearly, to process emotions, or to have complex thoughts in these moments to survive. We need to do one of the 4 Fs. Our brain conserves its energy for what only feels necessary in the moment.
Still Questioning Yourself?
So-- if you’re wondering if you are staying calm or having a trauma response-- assess if you’re able to be attuned to the situation and to stay present and think and communicate clearly about it. If you’re not able to do so, there’s no shame in experiencing a trauma response. But if you assess the situation and determine you are in fact staying calm and not just avoiding facing the reality, then don’t let anyone gaslight you into feeling bad about your ability to self-regulate and stay calm during the crisis.
If you are one of the few skilled individuals who are able to successfully stay calm during this crisis our world is facing-- I want to say thank you for staying calm because we are going to need as much help as we can get in weathering this storm. May you be our anchors keeping us as grounded as possible.