NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Remembering Your Strengths as a Way to Cope With a Crisis

In a prior article, Grieving Losses and Healing During a Crisis, I discussed the grief and loss that most people are feeling during this  COVID-19 crisis.  To an extent, one of the losses that some people feel is a certain erosion of a sense of self confidence (see my article: Understanding the Different Aspects of Yourself That Make You Who You Are).  Remembering your strengths during a time of crisis can help you to get through the current crisis (see my article: A Strengths-Based Perspective in Psychotherapy).

Online Therapy: Remembering Your Strengths as a Way to Cope With a Crisis

Remembering Your Strengths That Helped You During Prior Crises
Remembering your strengths is an inner way of knowing yourself and believing in your own self efficacy.  Sometimes, this sense of self comes to you with memories of your thoughts, feelings and behavior during a prior crisis.

As an example, during the last few days, I've been remembering the survivor instinct I felt during the 9/11 World Trade Center attack.  My daytime office was on Rector Street off of West Street in Downtown Manhattan, just two blocks from where the South Tower stood.

I remember that I was in early that morning and there were only a few colleagues there when we felt our building suddenly sway as the lights went off and back on. It felt like something big hit our building, and we were all confused at first about what had just happened.

I had a radio in my office and turned it onto the news as a colleague stood in my office and we both listened. We heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. My first thought wasn't that this was a terrorist attack.  I had no frame of reference for that.  I actually thought that the pilot of the plane must have been sick or impaired in some way and lost control of the plane.  We had no details at that point, so I was picturing a small plane--not a jumbo jet.

Then, I remember that we saw many pieces of paper that were torn and burnt floating in the air outside our windows, and it all felt very strange and surreal.  Soon after that, we heard the sirens of the fire engines and police cars.

Even though this was 19 years ago, the part of the memory that is most vivid for me is after we found out that the World Trade Center had been attacked and, after the second plane attacked the World rade Center, we were advised by our managers that the mayor said we should evacuate the building and walk north away from Downtown Manhattan.

I remember walking with two colleagues from our building and momentarily standing on the corner of Rector and West and looking at the South Tower. There was a jagged line of fire on the upper floors of the tower.  There were also many people around us who were standing there watching in disbelief.  But my immediate thought was, "We need to get out of here.  That building could fall."

I wasn't thinking the building would collapse in a pancake way, as it did.  I was actually thinking the top of building with the jagged line of fire could fall off and tumble down onto the street on top of us.
At the time, from our perspective, it looked like a real possibility.

Even though I was just as curious, if not more curious, as everyone else who was standing there looking at the South Tower, I had an overriding sense that we had to save ourselves in that moment and we should continue to walk north.

In times of crisis and during traumatic events, there can be a narrowing of the senses to deal with the immediate moment and one's own self preservation.  Many people have described this narrowing of the senses, especially a narrowing of vision, as if they had blinders on, that keeps them focused on what they need to do next.  And the usefulness of this survival strategy is obvious--it keeps you focused on what's most important: Staying alive.

It's difficult to describe what that narrowing of focus feels like if you haven't experienced it before.  The way that I experienced it was that any other extraneous thoughts and feelings fell far away, as if my colleagues and I were single-mindedly on a mission to walk north.

We eventually walked to the South Street Seaport. Fom there, after the collapse of the first tower, which shook the seaport, when it was safe to keep going, we headed to a colleague's husband's office, which was a media company.  It was there that we saw vivid images on giant screens on the wall of what had actually happened earlier that day.

Until then, we had little information.  We had heard that there might have been another plane with terrorists who were about to attack. So, we were confronted with this tragic news and had to figure out our next steps: Could we make it home safely? If there was another plane about to attack, was it safe enough to walk over the bridge or to take one the subway trains that were still running?

When I think about my own sense of self during that time, even though I was afraid and confused about what was happening, I had this inner sense that I had to stay focused and that I was going to survive.  That's the best way I could describe it.  I don't know where it came from, but it felt like a very deep and determined part of myself that emerged during this crisis. And, of course, my inner sense of knowing was right--I did survive.

Our work group was displaced for several weeks in a cramped conference room that belonged to another company.  Even though the conference room was cramped, we each worked at gathering information so that, as clinical social workers, we could provide important information to our clients, like: how to stay calm in a crisis, different ways to engage in self care or how to talk to children about the World Trade Center attack.  Soon after that, we were each conducting groups for employees all over New York City.

Even though I had my own concerns, I remember feeling like I was on a mission and staying focused on what needed to be done.  It felt good to be useful and provide some comfort to others.  While I was doing this, for the most part, I forgot about my own concerns and focused on our clients. Of course, there was plenty of time at night when things were quiet for my own concerns to emerge.  But while I was helping others and feeling useful, I was focused on what I needed to do.

When you think back to prior times when you went through a crisis, even if you were confused and frightened or you wish you had behaved differently, you can now look back and put your thoughts, emotions and behavior in perspective: The prior crisis had a beginning, a middle and an end, and you can now look back on it and realize that you survived.

Remembering that you survived and that the experience is in the past is an important part of the memory, especially during the current crisis where time can feel distorted. For instance, many people have said that the week or so that just passed feels more like a month or more.

I suspect that this distortion in time and space is occurring because the mind is still trying to rap itself around the magnitude of the worldwide effect of COVID-19.  Also, even though experts are making projections, we don't know when it will end.  We just know that it will end one day and we will look back on our experiences one day as a memory.

People With a History of Trauma Often Forget Their Inner Strengths
Many people who have a history of trauma, especially complex trauma where the trauma occurred early and on an ongoing basis, can lose their perspective even after the trauma is over (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Experiences From the Past).

The trauma was so profound for them that when they have a new traumatic experience, the old trauma gets triggered and it becomes difficult to distinguish feelings from the past from feelings in the present.

As a trauma therapist, when I work with a client who has developmental trauma, which is trauma that occurred over time in childhood, aside from helping clients to process the past, present and their fears about the future, I help them to distinguish "then" from "now" (see my article: Working Through Psychological Trauma: Learning to Separate "Now" From "Then").

These individuals often lose their perspective of the present and have a hard time sorting out past and current feelings.  If it becomes overwhelming for them, I help them to distinguish "now" from "then."

So for instance, I might ask them how they're different now as compared to back in their childhood when they experienced the trauma.  Or, if they're stuck, I'll help them by reminding them that, as children they were powerless to stop the trauma, but I remind them that now, as adults, they now have inner resources and capabilities that they didn't have back then, and I'll list these skills and capabilities if they're unable to do so themselves.

I'll remind them that, as compared to back then when they were children, now, as adults, they can defend themselves or choose to walk away from situations that are hurtful and harmful to them.

Of course, on some level, these are things that they know logically when they're feeling less anxious, but they might not feel it on an emotional level when anxiety overtakes them.  When they're upset, people who are traumatized sometimes forget that they're not powerless any more like they were as children.

When they're reminded that what happened to them was in the past and that they're much more powerful and capable now, they get a sense of relief and feel more empowered.  Then, I work with them to strengthen these feelings of being empowered.

For some people, especially people who come to therapy for a trauma that involved a single incident, like an incident of getting robbed or attacked, trauma therapy, like EMDR therapy, can help resolve the trauma relatively quickly (approximately, 10-12 sessions or so).  These are cases where there are no underlying developmental trauma that gets triggered.

This type of single incident trauma is often referred to as shock trauma, and it's less complex than trauma that occurred over a period of time in childhood, known as developmental trauma (see my article: The Difference Between Shock Trauma and Developmental Trauma).

However, the majority of clients who come to therapy have developmental trauma or they have shock trauma with underlying developmental trauma as part of their history, which is more complicated.

The reason why most clients who come to therapy have developmental trauma, as opposed to single incident, might be because single-events of trauma (or shock trauma) can sometimes resolve itself without a clinical intervention.

For instance, if people who are in a car accident are often initially afraid to drive to the area where the accident occurred.  However, many people are eventually able to get back in their car and drive each day passed that spot, even though they're anxious.

If they can do that, they're learning to desensitize themselves to their traumatic experience.  So, even though their initial reaction is one of fear, over time, they overcome their fear through repeated experiences of going to that spot and and having the experience of "I'm okay now."

Developmental trauma rarely if ever resolves on its own.  To resolve this type of trauma, someone needs to work through these experiences with a trauma therapist who uses specific types of trauma therapy that have been proven to be effective.

Experiential therapy, like EMDR, helps to resolve developmental trauma.  Even though the length of time is longer than it would be for shock trauma, the good news is that, generally speaking, EMDR (or any experiential therapy) is shorter and more effective than regular talk therapy (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Getting Help in Therapy
Remembering your strengths to cope with a current crisis can be challenging when the crisis is as unprecendented as the current COVID-19 crisis.

Healing usually occurs on a dyadic level, which means on a one-on-one level with an experienced clinician, rather than by yourself.  So, if you're feeling overwhelmed, you're not alone.  Help is available to you.

Many psychotherapists, like me, are conducting therapy sessions online to make sessions accessible to clients.

Rather than suffering on your own, if you feel overwhelmed, get help from a licensed psychotherapist who can help you to get through this difficult time.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

For couples work, I use Emotionally Focused Therapy, a well-researched and effective form of couples therapy.

I'm currently providing confidential online therapy sessions.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.