Updated: Mar 20
Jessica Culp, MA, LPC
Recently, at a Collective Grief and Trauma Conference, a therapist and speaker named Linda Thai, MSW, discussed the concept of coping with grief and trauma through amnesia and anesthesia. The first, amnesia, she explains by quoting Ludwig Wittgenstein: “that which we cannot talk about we pass over in silence – amnesia.” The next, anesthesia, is our tendency to self soothe by utilizing the readily available secondary means of comfort, which keep us from feeling the pain. If you feel like you have vacillated between these two coping mechanisms in the last year, you are not alone.
While no one actively wants to feel the painful realities of the past year, I think we all know at some level that to get through to the other side of the grief, we will have to allow ourselves to feel it at some point. And that can seem like an insurmountable task. A whole year of things that did happen, as well as those things that did not which could have, or should have. But, as I ask others about what happened this time last year, I hear puzzlement, and often surprise. “Oh yeah... what was I doing... oh yeah, it was such and such... oh, and I guess this... oh, wow.” That is the theme of responses. And to be honest, I’ve also had trouble remembering when I have started to try and piece together a history of the last year.
The lyrics of Pink Floyd’s 1979 Comfortably Numb kept coming to mind as I searched for what I felt I was seeing in others and experiencing myself. This is the portion of the song that particularly struck me:
Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?
I can't explain, you would not understand This is not how I am I have become comfortably numb
Looking up the lyrics and the meaning behind them really resonated with me, both in my own experience and in what I have been seeing as a trauma therapist with my clients in the past year. Roger Waters, one of the songwriters and lead singer of the band, was given sedatives before a two-hour performance, and is traumatized by his inability to convey his distress at being numbed out. He goes on, and the audience goes on, but there is no acknowledgement that something very painful had taken place.
Though some have actively used drugs in the last year, there are many ways to numb out of feeling in today’s world and cope with what has happened in this last year, (eating, not eating, sleeping, zoning out on our screens). Many of us are still in survival mode, and it may not be emotionally safe or feasible to simply jump into the process of grieving while simultaneously removing all the barriers that have kept us safe. Nevertheless, I think it is time to at least start thinking about what steps we can take to start spending less time either in amnesia or anesthesia.
In the trauma field, we often refer to Dr. Dan Seigel’s concept of the “window of tolerance.” This window is a place in which we find ourselves most open to being in relationship with others, we can access reason and emotion: it is our body's optimal state. When we get what is called “hyperarousal,” we go out of that place of tolerance in the way of anxiety, fear, overreactivity, and unclear thoughts. On the other hand, we may go into what is called “hypoarousal,” where we will feel depressed, lethargic, numb and unmotivated.
In talking about a “pervasive feeling of numbness,” I wasn’t implying that we always start there—or that we’re always there. We experience both hypo- and hyper-arousal at times. If we begin to recognize that we go into both of these uncomfortable places, we can then learn to use our bodies to help us get back into our window of tolerance, and therefore get ourselves into a better place to process the past year when the time is right. I want to encourage you to–with great intention–find new resources and reclaim your old familiar resources to help you walk into this next year more fully alive and engaged. And to–when you are truly ready–confront what needs to be confronted.
Here are some suggestions for getting back into your Window of Tolerance:
Use breathing techniques Start with simply noticing your breath, taking a breath, breathing beyond your chest and into your abdomen several times.
Ground yourself Feel your feet in your shoes, clench your toes, your fingers.
Use mindfulness Look around, eyes softened, to the left and the right, above and below you. Really look.
Also use breathing techniques Again, start with noticing your breath, taking a breath and Slowly exhaling longer than you inhale several times.
Use movement: Shake your body to release the body’s energy and get your blood flowing. Take a walk outside.
In both cases, use what you already know and like, such as dance, drawing, meditation, prayer, journaling, singing, playing an instrument, or jumping on a trampoline.