The human brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It produces our every thought, action, memory, and emotion. As a neuroscience student, I have always been fascinated by the brain’s complexity, its unrivalled processing capacity, and innate mechanisms to mitigate the psychological impacts of trauma and stress.
One of the brain’s innate defense mechanisms against trauma is dissociation. In movies about trauma, we have observed instances where the survivors or victims experience a disconnection or lack of continuity between their thoughts and memories before and after a traumatic event.
Mental fugues or dissociations are involuntary responses caused by the influx of stress hormones to the brain. These stress hormones lead to the activation of the frontal regions of the brain that are implicated in cognitive control and emotion downregulation. The stress hormones dampen brain activity in the amygdala, which is involved in fear responses. This modulation of activity effectively prevents the brain from being overloaded by trauma. It also allows the individual to escape reality temporarily and experience a momentary reprieve from suffering.
2020 saw an unprecedented amount of collective trauma and dissociation among the population. The constant exposure to unexpected deaths, the rising threat of death and social isolation had numerous psychological impacts on our society. Front line workers are the most impacted since they were exposed to an increasing number of COVID-19 related deaths and struggled to save lives due to supply shortages.
Some research suggests that doctors and nurses were forced to “dissociate” from the trauma of Covid-19 work. This dissociation allowed them to continue working without processing the emotions associated with the work they were doing. Unfortunately, our brains cannot remain dissociated forever. Many frontline workers are now struggling with post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression resulting from their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many people experienced immense trauma for the first time in 2020. The economic turmoil and restrictions that resulted from the pandemic made it impossible for many to grieve loved ones, find new employment, see their family members, celebrate milestones, or even achieve the year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, while we were in survival mode or dissociated from ongoing events, our minds could not take on a task as cognitively demanding as healing.
The common sentiment was that 2021 would be the year to get back on track with our goals and dreams—to negate the tragedy that was 2020 and start anew. 2021 would act as a great reset, and everything would return to some form of normal. Goals that were not achieved in the previous year were shifted to this year. While the new year always brings optimism, it is important to note that this year is different from all other years. This year carries with it the burdens of 2020. Burdens that are not likely to go away any time soon.
The repercussions of the economic crisis and pandemic are serious and long lasting. The health care system is backed up due to the volume and strain of fighting a pandemic while also trying to help heal and save non-Covid-19-related patients. More people are homeless and struggling in poverty due to the loss of jobs and layoffs from the pandemic, a grim reality that will need government funding and public will well after the pandemic to alleviate the situation.
There is also the issue of the laundry list of events that left the world that much more broken, such as the continued worsening of our climate crisis. All this is to say that 2020 will remain a revolutionary year that will continue to haunt us into the future.
I believe that we cannot truly move on as a society until we rebuild and mend what was damaged last year. Recovering from 2020 will take time, and if the only goal for this year is to survive and keep going, that is perfectly acceptable. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge the difficulties you had to get through. Allow time to really connect with yourself instead of continually disassociating. This year will be tough, but we can continue to survive and rebuild together.