Our Executive Clinical Director, Dr. Chantelle Thomas, recently wrote a feature for TMJ4 in Milwaukee. Here she talks about the ways people are being impacted by the pandemic along with her own personal experiences.
By Dr. Chantelle Thomas, Executive Clinical Director at Windrose Recovery
This past year has been a testing ground. These exceptional times have revealed new things about us, some of them good, some of them hard to acknowledge. I personally found myself wondering how I could keep going many times over. This struggle was only further complicated by the guilt of knowing many people were much worse off and even fighting for their lives.
It took weeks and months to fully grasp the fundamental shifts and changes in how our world was operating. Adaptation seemed to be a necessity, but the information was unclear, and the path forward felt equally obscured. For many, technology became a lifeline. Almost everything became remote and virtual as the world moved on. Some felt a slowing down and others an acceleration in the pace of life, heightened by the need to perpetually multi-task. For those expected to work from home with children “virtually” schooling, life became increasingly unmanageable. The posts via social media that boasted creative and innovative home/school/work solutions were admirable but somehow unsustainable. Some people celebrated the deviation from their routine and opportunity for more “together” time as a household; for those struggling, watching others navigate with apparent ease only added a layer of guilt and inadequacy.
Reflecting on the impact of the last year is a necessity, and yet, this time of uncertainty is not over. So many individuals are still holding their breath. The question is: are you?
Feeling responsible for remaining functional and knowing people might look to me for guidance, I took stock of my own system and how I was managing the stress. I spent the initial days of the pandemic becoming more and more aware of one thing: my body. I could feel my nervous system cycling at a higher frequency. I became aware of my heart beating and my stomach tightening. A perpetual sense of anticipation settled over me but the typical release that comes after a presentation or a difficult conversation with a colleague never came. As a biofeedback practitioner, I was lucky to have some frame of reference for the nervous system and the way to read my somatic signals. Clearly my body was communicating and encoding a sense of threat: fight or flight. I found myself holding my breath, noticing my shoulders perpetually creeping up, in a bracing hunch. “Remember, you teach this to clients: breathe into your belly, slow down your breath, exhale anything that you do not need.” Then came the question: did I really believe breathing could help? And the bigger question: Did I actually believe what I had been telling clients for years?
There was literally no rule book on “How to handle a global pandemic.” We are seeing the undeniable impact of the trauma and profound loss many have sustained during this time in both the inpatient and outpatient therapy arenas. My accumulated experience in treating individuals has often revealed when more insidious and subtle forms of disruption are neglected the implications can be seismic down the road. Several colleagues of mine have echoed this sentiment through their concise explanation of what can cause trauma: “too much, too fast.” What comes next is an innate human reflex to stop what is coming towards us. How can “too much” manifest in the mind? That feeling of not “thinking straight,” not tracking, and being unable to focus. Another variation can involve daydreaming more or “zoning out,” a cognitive reflex that provides temporary relief. In more severe circumstances, dissociation can become a profound barrier to healing. Unfortunately, for so many, the demands of our lives did not decrease but rather escalated, hence the mismatch between what our body was needing and what our lives demanded.
This is another way to think about how we get stuck internally when our body systems do not have the time or capacity to process what is happening. It’s like eating a full meal without the ability to digest it or attempting to drive a car that is completely on empty. The fascinating aspect of this conundrum is whether you pay attention to your body or not, it’s still responding to the threat.
So how can we interrupt this cycle? The first step is the willingness to explore how your body may be communicating valuable information about what has happened and may hold the keys to understanding what is now needed. Next comes the careful and deliberate steps in paying attention to what you notice in your breathing, your muscles, your stomach, your heartbeat. This self-curiosity can be extended to cues signaling the emptying of your emotional “gas tank:” irritability, quickness to anger or tears, impatience. Simple breath awareness and diaphragmatic breathing exercises (“belly breathing”) can begin the process of nervous system regulation. Education can be another critical gateway to becoming more aware and connected: The latest movement in the field of trauma treatment places its focus on how bodily responses are associated with thoughts and emotions (for further reading: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Vanderkolk). When we start paying attention to these somatic/bodily clues, we can begin the journey towards healing.
Dr. Chantelle Thomas is Windrose Recovery’s Executive Clinical Director and a Clinical Psychologist specializing in addiction treatment, trauma, and health psychology. With her experience in trauma work, Dr. Thomas guides the clinical team in the comprehensive assessment and treatment of each guest. Dr. Thomas is also a certified biofeedback practitioner, providing clients with an added dimension of insight and discovery helping them better regulate and understand the psychological impact of stress and chronic trauma. Dr. Thomas began her career as the Program Director for a dual-diagnosis addiction and trauma treatment center in Malibu, California. After receiving her PhD in Clinical Psychology, she completed her internship and post-doctoral fellowship in Health and Rehabilitation Psychology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Mental Health. While there, she gained specialized expertise in medical-surgical consultation, trauma-informed therapy and chronic pain treatment. Through the University of Wisconsin’s School of Family Medicine, Dr. Thomas then joined Access Community Health Center as a Behavioral Health Consultant to primary care physicians where she innovated the development of a substance use disorder consultation clinic embedded within primary care. Her background in research-supported treatment modalities directly informs her ability to ensure the most effective interventions are incorporated into Windrose Recovery’s holistic programs.