When most people hear the word “trauma” they think of veterans who come home from their time at war having lost dear friends and battled for their safety (and ours) or they may think of the many brave women who have stepped up in the #MeToo movement as survivors of sexual assault. Whatever it is that people think of when they hear the word, it is oftentimes a very severe and specific situation that we do not think we’d ever be experiencing ourselves.
But the truth is, throughout the pandemic, many of our lives have been completely turned upside down and many of us are still trying to figure out how to cope with whatever our new “normal” is in our lives. So while there is some debate as to whether or not the COVID-19 pandemic we have all been experiencing is a collective trauma or not (we’ll get into this later), one thing is for certain. This pandemic has been a tremendous event that has impacted our lives in many ways over the past three years and at this point, there have been nearly 990K deaths reported.
So, whether or not the COVID-19 pandemic counts as a traumatic event for our society, there are plenty of cases where people are experiencing trauma symptoms because of it.
What is Trauma?
Before we can establish whether or not the COVID-19 pandemic is a collective trauma or not, we must first define what exactly a “trauma” is. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” In other words, trauma is the emotional and psychological response to an extraordinarily painful or stressful event that affects your view of the world.
Oftentimes a traumatic event can leave someone feeling isolated and numb to the world around them. These events are oftentimes caused by an event that threatens your life or safety, but in reality, any event that makes you feel extremely overwhelmed and isolated can cause trauma.
Causes of trauma can be broken down into 3 categories: one-time events, ongoing stress, and some commonly overlooked stressors. One-time events are what most people think of when they think of the causes of trauma. These are things like an accident or an attack. The next cause of trauma is continuous stress and this is like continuously battling a chronic illness or experiencing repeated domestic violence or bullying. The third category is for things that people don’t usually associate with trauma symptoms — such as the death of a loved one, surgery, or a humiliating experience.
Is the Pandemic Causing Trauma?
Unfortunately, it is difficult to give a concrete answer here and there are a few opposing perspectives that a recent NPR article dives into. Here, we will go over some of the points mentioned in this article to see where they’re coming from and where they stand on this question. We will be talking about 3 different professionals here: Arthur Evans, Roxane Cohen Silver, and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk.
Evans says that viewing the world around you as unsafe can be a sign of trauma and since the pandemic, the APA has seen a significant increase in depression, anxiety, and other common trauma-related disorders.
Silver notes that the pandemic has not been like a normal traumatic event with a clear beginning and end, but rather a “slow-moving disaster” that has continued to escalate over time. This makes it even more difficult to define because it does not adhere to the typical “traumatic event” criteria.
Van der Kolk recognizes that this pandemic has been an ongoing stressor and a painful experience for many, but hesitates to call it a collective trauma to encourage us as a society to reflect and identify what it is we’re experiencing so that we can best heal from it.
So where does this leave us? Unfortunately, still no definitive answer as to whether or not the pandemic is necessarily causing trauma or just elevated levels of stress and anxiety. That being said, there are several stressors due to the pandemic that have caused many of us to experience trauma-like symptoms. Some of these include:
- State-imposed isolation.
- The emergence of new strains or varieties of the virus.
- Fear of going to social gatherings and contracting the virus.
- Fear of bringing the virus home to our loved ones.
- Extensive media coverage giving us information overload.
Signs of Psychological Trauma
Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events and there are many emotional and physical reactions that we can have. Remember, there is no correct way to cope with or respond to a traumatic event and there is nothing unnatural about your response to such an event.
Emotional symptoms like disbelief, confusion, irritability, anxiety, fear, guilt, isolation, hopelessness, and numbness are all very common reactions to trauma.
Additionally, physical symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, a racing heartbeat, aches and pains, and muscle tension are all common reactions as well.
Tips for Dealing with Trauma
Healing from trauma can be incredibly difficult — especially if you are not taking the time and energy to help yourself process the event (or events) that resulted in the trauma. So, here, we have just 4 things to focus on to help your mind and body recover and move on from the trauma.
1. Get Some Exercise
Trauma does a lot of damage to our bodies and puts us in a constant state of tension and fear. Making the active choice to exercise and get your body moving can help to dramatically reduce the amount of adrenaline in your system as well as release endorphins.
Try getting 30 or so minutes of exercise at least most days of the week (more if you can). This does not have to be all in one high-intensity exercising spree, you can break it up into 10-minute exercise sessions and spread them out through the day as well. Another thing to focus on is exercises that engage both your arms and legs like walking, swimming, or dancing. When you’re exercising, try to think about your body — what your breath sounds like, what your feet feel like when they touch the ground, etc. — instead of letting your thoughts wander to what you are anxious about.
2. Connect with Others
It is natural for us to feel uncomfortable connecting with others when we are experiencing a traumatic event, however, isolating ourselves isn’t going to help us heal. It is really important to try to maintain your connections with others throughout your recovery process because those connections help you not prolong the symptoms of trauma you are feeling.
Now, you do not have to talk about the trauma itself to connect with others, in some cases, this can only make things worse. So, try one (or more) of these ideas to better connect with people around you:
- Participate in social events — like potlucks, going to a movie, or having dinner with friends.
- Reconnect with old friends.
- Volunteer somewhere — like a shelter, non-profit, or soup kitchen.
- Make new friends.
If you do find that talking about the trauma is helpful to you, you can connect with the people around you by asking them for support or joining a support group to talk about what you’ve been experiencing.
3. Take Some Time to be Mindful
Mindfully regulating your nervous system can help you to calm yourself and relieve a lot of the anxiety associated with your trauma.
Try to implement some simple mindfulness exercises into your daily routine like:
- Practicing some mindful breathing, such as taking 60 deep breaths and focusing on the exhale.
- Focusing on your sensory input — maybe listening to music, petting an animal, or even smelling a certain candle or aroma helps to relieve your stress.
- Practice a grounding exercise, such as sitting in a chair and feeling your feet on the floor and your back against the chair.
- Allowing yourself to reflect on your emotions and feel them without judgment.
4. Make Healthy Choices
A healthy body means a healthy mind, and a healthy mind is going to have a much better time coping with stress and anxiety than an unhealthy one.
So, to best help yourself recover from the trauma you have experienced, make sure you are:
- Getting enough sleep. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to allow your body to create a stable and restful natural rhythm.
- Eating a well-balanced diet. This will help your body to stay healthy as well as make sure that you have the energy that you need to get through the day.
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs. These can worsen the trauma symptoms you are feeling and lead to increased isolation, anxiety, and depression.
- Trying relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, meditation, or even activities or hobbies that you enjoy.
When to Get Professional Help
Working through trauma can be terrifying, and everyone has their own processes and amounts of time that it takes to heal. But if you are noticing that it has been a long time and you have not been able to relax or recover, seeking professional help might be the next best step. Especially in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has eased up but not completely disappeared — it can be incredibly useful to speak with a licensed therapist and get some personal guidance on how to best relieve the pent-up anxieties and stress that you are experiencing.
It may be a good idea to seek professional help if you are experiencing…
- Trouble with your daily tasks — at work or at home.
- Severe fear, anxiety, depression.
- Unsatisfying relationships or the collapse of relationships.
- Avoidance of anything that reminds you of the trauma.
- Emotional numbness or a disconnect from the world around you.
- Increased reliance on drugs or alcohol.
Whether you’ve noticed some of these symptoms in yourself and you’re looking for some personalized guidance on how to heal from your pandemic-related trauma healthily, or you are simply wanting some guidance on how to cope with your new “normal” that has come about due to the events of these past few years, therapy can be a great option. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Love Heal Grow to schedule an appointment and begin (or continue) your healing process.