The collective trauma of a pandemic can cause us to unconsciously seek safety, which often means regressing to our childhood selves. Here, an expert explains exactly what this means and why it’s happening.
In the days before going into lockdown, many of us had to choose between staying put or returning to the family home . A lot of my friends stayed in their rented flats because the thought of living with their parents for an extended period of time was way too much. Others just don’t have a good enough relationship with their parents to be able to stay with them. And there were a few who quickly packed a suitcase and headed back to the mothership.
Whether you’re back with your family or not, however, The Recovery Centre (RCT) tells Stylist that many people are regressing to their childhood selves because of the pandemic situation. And after speaking with friends, colleagues and Twitter followers, it seems a lot of people relate to this in different ways.
Take Alana, who lasted four weeks in lockdown at her parents house. Eventually, she begged her dad to drive her back to London so that she could continue social distancing alone. Is this the adult version of storming off to your bedroom?
Talking about feeling like a child again by experiencing the same family dynamics, she explains: “Don’t get me wrong, it had it’s perks but my mum just seemed to find my presence such an inconvenience – I felt 29 going on nine. The last 24 hours were spent crying uncontrollably, but I’m in London now alone and feel much calmer.”
I decided to stay in my London flat but question my choice every day. I miss my mum just like I did when I went camping with the Brownies for the first time. A lot of change happened in my childhood – moving house no less than seven times before I turned 16, dealing with the fall out of my parents’ awful divorce – but the one constant was my mum’s protection. I have always, always felt safe in her presence, so there have been some heavy sobs in longing for that warm, familiar feeling over these last few weeks.
Then there’s my friend Suze, who is living on her own during lockdown, and has been ruminating a lot on the troubled relationship she has always had with her parents. “For me, I’ve always thought of my friendships as my family. They have now been taken away, in a physical sense, which has left these relationships not quite feeling the same. So I have regressed back to feeling alone, frustrated, even abandoned, like I did as a kid.
“Also when I hear about people going back to their mum and dads, sharing TikTok videos and making quizzes on Zoom – it’s hard to listen to. At a time when I really need that parental support, this just further highlights the fact that I’ve never really had it. And I can’t stop retracing my childhood and remembering what happened, which leaves me upset. I’ve even been writing it all down for the first time in forever.”
So what’s going on here? Why are these childhood behaviours and feelings creeping back into us? And what does it mean for people who have really serious traumas from their past?
Trauma specialist and psychotherapist Lucinda Gordon-Lennox outlines trauma as when:
1. We have lost our sense of safety (which many of us have, economically, politically and socially).
2. We experience a loss of predictability, which we all need as humans in order to function (some of us have lost jobs, our daytime routines have changed we don’t know when lockdown will end, and we don’t know what the world will look like afterwards).
3. We lose our sense of purpose – perhaps through job loss, or routine change.
4. We experience a loss of connection – we are in lockdown.
5. We have a loss of mobility – many of us are not able to move around or be as active as we like.
“When we experience trauma, we unconsciously seek safety,” Gordon-Lennox explains, linking our current circumstance to our childlike behaviour. “For some this might be acting how we were when we were little and we had the safety of mum and dad. For others this might be acting out on behaviour that made us feel safe when we were little. Here we have functional (calling mum and dad for advice) and dysfunctional (food, addictions, being busy etc.).
“For others, this might mean that we are triggered into our childhood wounds. This can be especially relevant if we are now living with the people who, however unintentionally, wounded us in the first place.”
Gordon-Lennox has some advice:
1. Awareness. If we are aware of our behaviours and that we are regressing and/or being triggered, then we have a better chance of reconnecting with our adult self.
2. Consciously re-find our adult self. This is really important. Our adult self has not disappeared, it is just hidden by our triggered younger selves coming out to play.
3. Remember we are safe. Remind ourselves that we are safe, in this moment, even if the bigger picture seems scary and unpredictable. Meditation can be great for getting present, and reminding us that, in this present moment, we are OK. If we build up a series of present moments, one after the other, then we learn that we are actually OK.
4. Breathe! Breathing into the belly is one of the most underestimated soothing techniques that there is. It can calm the nervous system through the ventral vagal nerve, sending a message to our body and brain that we are OK. Singing, humming, laughing, and seeing friends is also good for the ventral vagal nerve activation.
5. Get mobile. We need to move this trauma through and out of our bodies – so let’s dance! Or run! Or go for a walk.
6. Find a sense of purpose. Even if it’s just a temporary one, it can help us reconnect with our adult selves.
7. Notice what age we feel. Do we feel young? Three? Four? Five? Eight years old? If we notice how young we feel, we can step in and parent ourselves without needing to reach out to the family system in our child state, which of course could make us feel even worse afterwards.
8. Stay connected to our friends and colleagues. Eye contact is so helpful here too. We need to be connecting to the people who really see us and understand us. Video call is a good option.
9. Yoga and meditation. They are good for everything.
10. Remembering that this will pass. This lockdown is temporary.
Anyone who is worried about their mental health during the pandemic can contact mental health charity Mind’s Infoline on 0300 123 3393. Alternatively, you can read their online guide sheet here.