Trauma & Resilience: Living in Times of Uncertainty
During the past few weeks, perhaps months if you’ve been following the progression of COVID-19 around the world, we have watched our lives be uprooted in an unexpected, and certainly terrifying, way. What is happening before our eyes seems like a daunting, anxiety-provoking, force, especially for those of us carrying traumas that can appear to be unrelated to quarantine –and yet, they are.
In our Refugee & Newcomer Program, we see clients with a variety of stories, most of which have war trauma, domestic violence, sexual assault, torture, genocide, or a combination of these. The past week has been filled with phone conversations and check-ins with our clients after we, at Jewish Family Services, decided to close our doors for the time being, following the directives of our government and health officials. What has become apparent to us, in our program, and what we have been deliberating about amongst ourselves, is the level of resilience that our clients have shown.
At the beginning, we theorized that it is most likely due to past experience with quarantine. Most people who fled war-torn countries have had to stay in enclosed spaces for a long time, and have learned what needs to be done from the beginning: establish a routine, remain connected, entertain and comfort children, and ensure that necessary supplies are available at home. And our theory was confirmed by clients, as well as staff members who have also fled war.
But as the week passed, we came to realize that another factor plays a role in this striking ability to manage the anxiety of quarantine: the ability to live with uncertainty, while having faith that certainty, and thereby safety, is merely lingering around the corner.
One of the themes that links all stories of trauma is the thin, but highly visible, thread of lack of control; and if there is one thing we know about human beings in general, it is the knot at the end of that thread: uncertainty. With COVID-19, we have the whole package. We are constantly exposed to news outlets updating on numbers by the minute, and social media, where an abundance of anger, despair, death, and –of course- conspiracy theories can be found. So how are our clients, ones who have gone through indescribable trauma, dealing with this?
There is certainly no shortage of fear, anxiety, nightmares, or flashbacks; however, a swift shuffle in daily life seems to be happening with them, almost like re-organizing your kitchen cabinets. The longstanding beans and legumes, the dry fruits, the packs of pasta, and the canned vegetables, are all placed in one cupboard to keep the supply in check. In other words, our clients have managed to quickly prioritize their, and their children’s, needs in terms of school, work, connection with friends and family, entertainment to ward off the boredom, and even humour. Some are even dancing with their children, or singing, or painting.
All of this, yes, helps with the isolation; however, what about the uncertainty? Ah, yes. Upon further search, we’ve come to find the answer: a personal cupboard–a bottom one, of course, to be within the reach of children- that is full of certainty. So, what exactly is in there?
A myriad of answers emerged from our inquiries: deeply rooted coping mechanisms, refined grounding techniques, intergenerational resilience, the voice of a loved one full of assurances of safety, prayer and meditation, light humour, and, certainly, faith that by following the instructions of experts, they will be fine –again-. Each person had their own personalized cupboard, organized individually to suit their needs, stocked with crafted methods of… well, to put it simply, surviving.
What we learn from our clients, and what we work with them toward, is recalling, calibrating, fine-tuning the ways with which they have always managed uncertain, uncontrollable situations before. These recipes for managing anxiety, even for grounding when memories of trauma begin to haunt, are, as we’ve learned, ingredients for assembling some certainty; in other words, for us to focus on the things we can control, and to balance uncertainty with the elements of certainty we already have.
We have mentioned above a few items that our clients have in their personalized cupboards. But what’s in your personal cupboard? What do you have stocked up that is helping you during this difficult time of social distancing? What wisdom has been passed through your family history that speaks of resilience? What has been integral, in your new everyday life, to calm the fear and anxiety? Please tell us in the comments bellow.
The Refugee & Newcomer Program offers counselling and psychotherapy services to clients who are refugee claimants, government assisted refugees, privately sponsored refugees, and newcomers to Canada. They work from culturally-responsive and trauma informed perspectives, and offer services in a multitude of languages, including Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and Creole.
Trauma et resilience: vivre en période d’incertitude
Au cours des dernières semaines, voire les derniers mois pour ceux qui ont suivi la progression de COVID-19 dans le monde, nous avons vu nos vies bouleversées d’une manière inattendue et certainement terrifiante. Ce qui se passe sous nos yeux constitue un défi de taille, une source considérable d’anxiété, en particulier pour ceux d’entre nous qui ont vécus des traumatismes qui peuvent sembler étrangers à la quarantaine – et qui pourtant, ne le sont pas.
Dans le cadre de notre programme pour les réfugiés et nouveaux arrivants, nous rencontrons des clients aux histoires multiples, la plupart ayant vécu des traumas de guerre, de la violence domestique, des agressions sexuelles, de la torture, des génocides ou une combinaison de ces expériences. Conformément aux directives de notre gouvernement et des responsables de la santé, nous avons décidé au centre juif de la famille d’Ottawa de fermer nos portes il y a deux semaines. Cette même semaine a été remplie de prises de contacts avec nos clients afin de voir comment ils se portaient. Ce qui nous apparait aujourd’hui frappant, après des conversations entre nous, collègues du programme, est le degré de résilience dont nos clients font preuve.
Au début, nous avions émis l’hypothèse que cela est probablement dû à une expérience préalable avec la quarantaine. La plupart des personnes qui ont fui des pays ravagés par la guerre ont dû longtemps rester dans des espaces clos et ont appris dès le début ce qui doit être fait: établir une routine, rester connecté, se divertir, réconforter les enfants et s’assurer que les biens et denrées nécessaires soient disponibles à la maison. En effet, notre théorie a pu être confirmée grâce à l’expérience rapportée par des clients, ainsi que par des membres du personnel qui ont également fui la guerre.
Mais au fil de la semaine, nous avons réalisé qu’un autre facteur semble déterminant dans cette capacité frappante à gérer l’anxiété de la quarantaine: l’aptitude à vivre dan