To talk about how to cope with extreme stress, I have to tell you what happened when I was 14. I was riding in the back of our family friends’ car. My parents, my 12-year-old brother, and our friends’ son were in the car ahead of us. We had just begun our annual winter weekend. We’d checked into a hotel and enjoyed the treat of a dinner out. We were returning to the hotel for swimming and more fun when I saw a car up ahead coming fast and swerving wildly from lane to lane. The car was headed right for my family, when it swerved in the opposite direction. I was so relieved. But then it came careening back toward our family car and struck it, spinning and crushing it.
What happened next is a blur for me, but I remember my dad stumbling out of the car with blood streaming down his forehead. My brother came out limping with a bloody knee. My mom did not appear as she was embedded in the dash of the car.
After the ambulance arrived to take my family to the emergency room, I found I couldn’t stop shaking. When we arrived, I was dazed. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think straight. Then I was horrified by the sound of my mother screaming in pain.
Later that evening when everyone but my mother had been discharged, I couldn’t sleep. I saw the accident happen over and over and over again. When I returned to school the next week, I felt like I was dreaming, that nothing I had experienced or was experiencing was real.
Acute Stress Disorder
I now understand that I had symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder. The stress of the experience was extreme enough that I was having trouble functioning. My mother was in recovery from that accident involving a drunk and high driver for over a year, but thanks be to God, she did recover. So did I.
You may be wondering why I’m talking about the effects of extreme stress on a homeschool blog. I am writing about it because you or your family members may be unfortunate enough to experience the kind of trauma I did — unexpected loss of a loved one, a shocking diagnosis, or witnessing violence. There is another form of extreme stress, though, that we don’t often associate with Acute or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but it affects all of us. I’ll explain with another story.
It was September 11th, 2001. I was getting ready to take my preschooler to a morning Mother’s Day Out program at my church, when the radio reported that an airplane had hit one of the twin towers in New York City. This was upsetting to say the least, but it was believed to be a terrible accident. My husband and I never have the news on during the day, but we turned the TV on when we learned that a second plane had struck the World Trade Center.
I was confused about whether I should take my son to church as scheduled when it was obvious that we had suffered a terrorist attack. I did, though, and had the radio on as I drove. When the newscasters described the collapse of the towers as I drove, I was utterly horrified. I was crying and shaking and confused. When I arrived at church, no one knew what to do.
In the days that followed, we, like so many others, watched gruesome, terrifying, gut-wrenching newscasts all day, every day. I had that same feeling of derealization, that same numb feeling of not knowing what to do that I’d had at 14. It took me a while to realize that what we were doing wasn’t healthy. But when I understood what was happening, I spoke at my church and encouraged our members to stop watching the coverage of this tragedy. We were being traumatized over and over again by what we were watching. We were developing and maintaining a stress disorder by taking in media trauma.
The Trauma of 2020
Then came 2020. Pandemics were always something that affected far-off countries and a few unfortunate individuals here before it was stopped. I fully expected Covid-19 to be no different. So I was shocked when my Great Homeschool session in Ft. Worth was halted. We were told we had to be out of the building in short order.
I returned home and a short time later my husband and I went to the grocery store and found 90% of the shelves were empty. We were under lockdown and the streets of our busy city were eerily empty. The headlines of our papers used every terrifying word in the English vocabulary to tell us what the pandemic was doing day after day after day. Social media was rife with stories of people dying, people afraid of dying, and people afraid of being responsible for someone else dying.
Weddings were canceled. Funerals for our beloved friends and family members weren’t held. Kids’ sports and trips and family get togethers were canceled. Kids in schools including colleges were sent home. We were thoroughly traumatized. But we kept watching and reading the news.
The extreme stress of we’ve experienced in the last 19 months is unlikely to be our last. So I want to share with you the symptoms of stress disorders and what we can do to cope with them and prevent them in the future.
Symptoms of Stress Disorders
One major feature is mentally reexperiencing the trauma. This occurs in the form of nightmares or flashbacks. These memories feel intrusive and uncontrollable and can disrupt sleep and normal functioning. I mentioned my intrusive memories of my family’s accident. I have also had a number of pandemic nightmares.
A second major feature of stress disorders is a sense of being numb, disassociated from others, and trying to avoid anything that reminds one of the trauma. When our new puppy died in surgery, I ran through the house, collecting anything that reminded me of her and put it out of sight. Throughout 2020, I felt like I was dreaming and hoped I would wake up.
A third major feature of stress disorders is heightened arousal. A traumatized person is often jumpy, startling easily. Severe anxiety and irritability are common. After 9/11, I kept anticipating the next attack. For a while, I was afraid to go to some public places. Current stress seems to have taken a toll on flight crews as the irritability was noticeable on flights I took recently.
When someone is suffering from the effects of extreme stress, they will not respond to reason. Someone could have said to me that the odds of our local shopping mall being targeted by terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11 were infintesimal and they would have been correct. But it wouldn’t have changed my anxiety.
One of the most common statements I’ve heard since the spring of 2020 is “People have gone crazy.” In my opinion, this angry, anxious, irrational behavior we have seen in ourselves and others is the result of extreme stress–trauma, if you will. But we don’t have to continue to suffer its effects.
Coping Strategies for Extreme Stress
Stop reading and watching the news
You won’t be surprised to hear me say that the first step is to stop reading and watching the news. Also stop reading and watching social media posts that trigger this stress. That is easier said than done. We tend to be drawn to tales of terror as witnessed by the popularity of the horror genre and ratings of anxiety-inducing news stories. I have struggled to disconnect from the peddlers of panic myself. One reason we keep taking in the trauma is our belief that information is protective. If we know what’s going on the world, we think we can take action and evade the tragedy.
Because like me you may have symptoms of a stress disorder, I’m not going to try to reason with you about that. But I am going to ask you who is in control. I am going to paraphrase a powerful quote I read some years ago. If you are in control, you have reason to worry. If God is, you have nothing to worry about. In fact, the Christians I know who believe that God leaves us with all the choices that can shorten or lengthen our lives have the most anxiety. Those who believe God is sovereign and works even our bad choices together for our good have the most peace. In Luke 12, Jesus asks us, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life[a]? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” It’s true that in trusting God we have no guarantee that we won’t experience trauma. But it is also true that God will never leave us or forsake us, and will give us His grace and supernatural peace.
Talk about it
On my internship I was part of group counseling for veterans who experienced trauma. When these veterans served in wars, we didn’t know that a critical part of preventing stress disorders was getting the traumatized person to talk about what they experienced. Especially the World War II vets I met were encouraged to be stoic and protect their loved ones from their trauma. That avoidance and denial contribute to chronic stress disorders, substance abuse disorders, depression, psychosis, and suicide.
In the same way, a contributor to stress disorders in 2020 and onward has been the social stigma of talking about the trauma so many of us have experienced. If we share the distress about anything other than the death of a loved one from Covid, we are being selfish and are quickly silenced. Better to cancel a wedding and save lives, we were told. Better not to have a funeral than risk others dying. Better to keep the kids away from friends and activities than risk a grandparent’s life. Don’t complain about these things. Think about people in worse situations than you’re in, we’re told.
I’ve spoken about the problem with this way of thinking before. Invalidating people’s grief makes it worse. There is always someone who has it worse. When I lost a baby at 11 weeks, I was told about a woman who lost one at 8 months. Her grief was far worse than mine, but that didn’t make mine disappear. And it didn’t make it less important for me to talk about it.
So after eliminating the source of repeated trauma, the next step for coping with extreme stress is talking about it. I found I wasn’t able to talk about what I was feeling with respect to current events on social media. Some of my friends and family weren’t comfortable talking about it either. Not everyone is a safe person to talk to about trauma. But there are people who can handle it. They’re either people who have experienced similar stress, people who are excellent empathic listeners, or professional counselors. No matter which type of person you speak with about your experiences, it is critical that you talk about it and keep talking about it when you need to.
Have you talked with your immediate family about their experiences? If not, ask them what was the hardest, most frightening, most demoralizing aspect of it. Affirm each family member for sharing without putting a happy spin on it.
Get professional help
If extreme stress interferes with your health and daily functioning for more than 30 days and it isn’t a part of the normal grieving process, make an appointment with a counselor. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the treatment of choice for chronic stress disorders. The counselor will help you change the way you think and behave with respect to the trauma. You’ll learn skills for calming yourself. You’ll get help developing constructive coping strategies like exercise and creative pursuits and ending destructive coping strategies like alcohol abuse.
God’s remedy for extreme stress
I’m going to conclude by telling you the new perspective I have of a popular Bible account in 1 Kings 18-19. Elijah has a showdown with the prophets of Baal and God wins decisively. Elijah then calls on God to make it rain and it does. Finally, Elijah runs supernaturally fast like the superhero Flash to get ahead of Ahab. Win, win, win. But when Jezebel calls for his murder, he runs away in a panic and asks God to end his life. I’ve always thought he was suffering from depression. I missed something. Elijah had likely seen some of the other prophets of God who had been killed. No doubt their murders had been gruesome. After the contest on Mount Carmel, the Bible says Elijah has the prophets of Baal slaughtered. Even though these men were evil, the carnage had to have been traumatic for Elijah. He was experiencing the effects of extreme stress despite the victories he had in the Lord and he wasn’t talking it out.
In addition to recognizing traumatic circumstances, avoiding media that traumatizes us father, and talking about our experiences, we have these admonitions from 1 Kings: 1) get extra rest, 2) eat well, and 3) spend time in prayer and God’s Word.
We can be encouaged that our Lord understands our weakness and lends us His strength at these times.