In March 2020, much of the world shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. When stay-at-home orders were first mandated, reactions varied. Most people worried to some degree about their health and their financial future. However, there were also extreme reactions. On the one end, those in denial, minimizing what was happening, or using humor to avoid it. At the other end of the spectrum were those who were not only distressed by the current crisis, but also plagued with memories from past traumas. This group in particular struggled with debilitating anxiety and depression.
For survivors of past trauma, depression, anxiety and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increased even more as any current stressor can trigger memories and feelings of past trauma. For example, someone who came from a broken home, might struggle with community stay at home orders during the pandemic. Being forced to stay at home as an adult could trigger childhood memories of being unable to escape dysfunction or emotional or physical abuse. Individuals who become ill during the pandemic, might have extra difficulty because of being reminded of being powerless as a child while, for instance, taking care of an alcoholic parent who was often sick. Or being bedridden with childhood flu or serious illnesses. Worries about finances might stir memories of witnessing domestic violence when a parent lost their job.
While everyone is dealing with the Covid-19 crisis in their own way, anyone with underlying trauma issues is likely to feel as though the world is crashing down.
Bouts of stress, depression, and anxiousness that many normally feel in response to a crisis is amplified exponentially for someone already struggling with trauma. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Crises are sudden and unpredictable. Nobody knows what to expect. That can be disconcerting for anyone, but for someone with a history of trauma, a current crisis can create compounding stress. Trauma itself is usually sudden and always unpredictable. This is true, for example, for anyone who experienced inconsistent parenting and crises because of living with an alcoholic or mentally unstable parent. A current crisis can cause that person to feel as if they were back in their childhood when their parent might become violent, abusive, or neglectful.
- Confusion. Lack of information, misinformation, or confusing information can trigger stress in anyone. When leadership gives mixed messages, everyone becomes more confused.
- Feeling out of control. Anyone who has experienced trauma, didn’t have control over the situation. With the intrusion of this new, unknown virus, we must wait months or years for the doctors and scientists to get control of it. In the mean time, taking safety precautions like washing hands, is the best we can do. Not knowing personal risk factors, treatment options, and so on, increases everyone’s stress.
- Feeling like it’s never going to end. When there is not a predictable end point to something like Covid-19, it can feel like it’s going to last forever. And that can stir feelings of hopelessness.
- Grief. Anyone might feel grief even if they have never experienced trauma in their life. To one degree or another, everyone is grieving for what life once was, the “old normal.” Every community has lost a sense of normalcy with social distancing and shelter in place orders. For children, it can be especially challenging as they don’t understand why they no longer can be with their friends or play at the playground. Someone who usually finds walking on the beach or hiking a favorite trail to be a soothing ritual then all of a sudden loses access, experiences a normal feeling of loss: something once cherished has become out of reach.
- Isolation. As humans, we aren’t meant to be alone. We need connection with others. Social distancing has caused many people to isolate and as a result, feel disconnected from others, and perhaps even from themselves.
- Addiction. Many people who already struggle with addiction, may find it easier to fall back into or increase addictive behavior. Being isolated from others can cause people to lose their sense of purpose so they look for solace in alcohol or other drugs.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a collective trauma, that is a trauma shared by a group of people. In this case, the worldwide magnitude of this trauma is something like we’ve never experienced in most of our lifetimes. While there are a few advantages to shared experiences (i.e. “we are all in this together” mentality), mainly there are disadvantages. When a collective trauma like Covid-19 happens, it’s difficult to escape it because everyone is talking about it. When the whole world is in turmoil, it’s hard to stay calm and clear thinking.
Feelings like anxiety and depression can be quite contagious. Currently the most discussed topic is the pandemic. There’s almost no way to avoid it. Under normal circumstances, individuals in stressful situations often look for refuge in other people or in other places. However, during a collective stress like this where the stress is everywhere, refuge might be difficult to find.
The first week the stay at home restrictions were announced, one of my clients expressed her concern: “Everyone’s traumatized, even my support system is traumatized. Who am I going to go to now for comfort?” I assured her that although I was stressed, I still felt strong enough to be able to help her. That helped. She needed to know that there was someone who could hold strong and be the rock and be a kind of refuge.
Being overly empathetic towards others can affect your own well-being. It is possible to pick up other people’s stress by feeling so bad about their situation. A big danger of collective trauma is collective sadness which can feel like you are being smothered by a blanket of sadness.
What to do?
Over my decades of experience as a trauma psychologist, I have seen how trauma often creates a disconnect inside a person. Trauma can make you feel disconnected from your body, from your heart, mind, loved ones, God, or spirituality—eventually from who you truly are. Your whole self.
As the Covid-19 virus hit and spread, combined with individual, community, and governmental responses, it provided a “perfect storm” for trauma. Trauma symptoms became exacerbated in those who had already experienced it, and developed anew in people who may not have experienced trauma before. This has led to many more people becoming disconnected from themselves, their families, their communities, their faith, and so on.
Below are the five of the steps I have discovered that will help to empower you during this crisis, and help you to reconnect.
Step 1: Understand trauma
To understand yourself and to normalize your feelings, you need to know what trauma is and how it affects your physical and emotional well-being. Many people are frustrated because they haven’t been able to overcome past trauma on their own. They somehow believe that they should be over symptoms when much time has passed; trauma is complicated and individuals have a tendency to beat themselves up if they can’t just “get over” their trauma. However, trauma healing requires patience and (usually) support from others. A couple of points of sound advice:
- Don’t make drastic life changes in the midst of any crisis
- Don’t give up on yourself
- Don’t be surprised if your past trauma feels as if it is happening again, triggered by the current crisis.
Step 2: Reconnect to your mind
During a traumatic event, the reasoning part of your brain becomes less accessible and makes it difficult for you to think straight. This causes you to disconnect from your mind. After the fact, high stress can cause the same kind of disconnect. Practicing mindfulness is one way to reconnect. Stay focused on the present—you are in the here and now—instead of paying attention to the future or the past. If you do that, your thoughts will stop racing. Traumatized people often struggle with self-compassion because of deep shame or self-hatred. It can help to make peace with yourself, accepting what was. Watch out for your negative self-talk, as that can make you feel worse.
Step 3: Reconnect to your body
Most people are not used to thinking of their body as contributing to their emotional well-being. They see their bodies as only physical. They don’t understand or feel the connection between their body and emotions. But, there’s a vital connection between the two. Trauma may have disconnected you from your body through dissociation.Someone who has been under threat, might learn to deal with the pain and protect themselves by leaving their body. We humans have the capacity to decrease our pain by “checking out.” You can reconnect to your body by exercising regularly. Mindful walks, yoga, and tai chi are some of the ways to calm your body and your nervous system.
Try out this simple grounding activity
- Sit comfortably in a chair in an upright position. Make an effort to reduce your thoughts so you can better pay attention to your senses.
- Start by first looking around the room while breathing normally. Notice what you see: the colors, the shapes, and anything else that gets your attention. Make sure you move your neck slowly from right to left as this helps orient you to your surroundings.
- Next, pay attention to the sounds you hear—voices, cars, birds, any kind of sound.
- Then tune into your sense of smell. Is there any smell that you pick up? Are you able to breathe through your nose? Maybe go to the kitchen to smell your favorite spice.
- Next shift your attention now to your sense of taste. What do you notice? Maybe you have just eaten something and you can still taste the food in your mouth. Or you can take a piece of chocolate or a raisin. Pay attention to that.
- Lastly, pay attention to all this at once—what you see, the sounds you hear, what you smell, the taste in your mouth. Resist the desire to analyze and simply stay focused on what your senses perceive instead. Then pause, and ask, “How am I feeling?” If you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or scared, stop and don’t judge yourself. But you might discover that when you focus on your current sensations, you feel calmer and more present.
Step 4: Reconnect to your heart/emotion
Stay connected to your heart by validating your feelings and not judging your reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. Share your feelings with those who will not judge you. Don’t attempt to numb your feelings with drugs, drinking, or overeating. Writing down your feelings can be a helpful way to deal with the stress and trauma. When you talk or write about what happened (or is happening) to you, you access the more logical part of your brain. And you can access the more emotional part of your brain by writing or talking about your feelings or expressing them, for example, through art.
Here’s an exercise you can try to help you reconnect to yourself. When you wake up, write down your thoughts and feelings in a free-form style, nonstop without thinking. Write whatever comes to your mind, and if nothing comes to your mind, feel free to write, “I don’t know what to write…this is stupid…I don’t feel anything…” and so on. You may be surprised that you start getting in touch with your feelings as you do daily writings this way.
Step 5: Reconnect to spirituality/community/nature/family
Stay connected to your loved ones and your community. If social distancing is recommended, call or text, write letters or emails, or connect via video media all on a regular basis. Connect to nature. Find ways to be outdoors and notice the beauty of nature. And don’t forget to connect with your spirituality or God in whatever way is meaningful to you. Many religious and spiritual groups have regular meetings and services online.
The truth is every reaction to this and other crises is individual and everyone’s feelings should be respected rather than judged. So be gentle with yourself no matter what. We all need support now more than ever (and that includes supporting ourselves internally). As Buddha stated, “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”