The majority of the attention on COVID-19 has focused on slowing down the progression of the spread of this virus. The importance of “flattening the curve” to support our medical system has understandably taken center stage in the media. However, as a trauma therapist, I see a pandemic of another kind brewing as well, which isn’t being focused on enough. The social, mental, and cultural impact of going through a global pandemic will leave a psychological trauma pandemic behind.
As we have been reminded in this situation, it’s important to be prepared for the medical impact of a pandemic. Our society also needs to prepare for the psychological impact of a crisis like this. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been socially isolated and have experienced dramatic and rapid losses in their lives, all while having little preparation for a crisis of this magnitude. We obviously weren’t ready for the medical consequences, but as a trauma therapist, I would argue that we’re not currently ready for the mental health consequences, either. The stress and fear that have come from this pandemic, along with the global loss and isolation required to combat this are the perfect ingredients for psychological trauma and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When the dust settles from this crisis, almost everyone will be impacted. This isn’t to say we won’t recover. However, the impact from the stress and grief people have experienced in a short period of time will impact us long after this is pandemic has ended.
The Foundations for Trauma During the COVID-19 Crisis Are There
The rapid shift people have had to make from a “normal life” to extreme uncertainty in a matter of days and weeks gave little time to orient and adjust to the changes that were coming. Even worse, people have experienced literal shock after coming out of denial, but have had to override their own coping process to perform for their jobs, families and partners. People are trying to show competence and confidence while they’re struggling. This is a recipe for trauma. When people override their emotional experiences, the odds of long-term mental health consequences and social consequences go up. In our field, we’ll see people dealing with relationship, social, physical and even sexual problems that are related to unresolved traumas from years ago. The symptom might not even seem related to the original traumatic situations.
Trauma is even more likely in this crisis because of social distancing. Obviously, I believe that people should listen to their local social distancing recommendations. At the same time, these requirements come with consequences, which can include leftover trauma. PTSD often comes from people doing the “right thing” at the time of a trauma. Sometimes we have to override or ignore our instinct to keep ourselves and others safe. Unfortunately, this also means that the experience is likely to leave some unresolved baggage behind.
Trauma First Aid
Awareness, Connection, Self-Kindness, and Acceptance
You can give yourself a head start in your healing by focusing on these four things. First, practice being aware of your emotions. Although you can’t just let all of your emotions freely come out at any time, you can recognize when you’re overriding them, log the situation, and share that emotional experience with someone you trust. It’s amazing how powerful this can be and it decreases the chance that you’ll hold onto traumatic feelings after the crisis passes.
Connection is required to navigate through trauma. In-person connection helps us cope with traumatic situations. Although we’re fortunate to be able to connect online, we also have to be real about the limitations of this. It’s helpful, but it’s not the same as in-person contact. Again, by doing the right thing and committing to social distancing, we’re having to override this important need. I recommend that people remain aware of the limitation, while using the technology while we’re required to do so. Then as the threat passes, make an effort to engage in social connections to help re-acclimate.
People are often hard on themselves for how they’re coping with a trauma. We often downplay our own intense emotions and tell ourselves that we shouldn’t have them. Do the opposite. Be kind to yourself and accept the emotions that you’re having. Doing so will decrease the likelihood that these emotions will stick with you in a negative way.
If you notice someone seems in shock after they have come out of denial, support them. You’ll be amazed at how much that can build your own resilience to trauma. We call this co-regulating in our field.
Finally, it’s important to note that you can do amazing first aid and still walk away with leftovers from a traumatic time. Trauma isn’t about weakness. Remember, it often comes from us trying to do the right things in challenging times. The good news is that there are a lot of therapists out there who are trained in trauma who can help. Whether it’s first aid or problems down the road, trauma therapy can help.