Trauma in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic – What is it

Therapist sympathizing with client

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a sense of uncertainty in all of us, and we don’t like that. We want life to be predictable. We like to know what’s going on and what’s going to happen. We watch or hear the news every day, searching among the vast amount of information we’re exposed to for small bites of hope that can keep us going, something that will reassure our weakened sense of safety and security.

Sometimes it feels like we’re trapped as the experience of losing our orderly world with its predictable routines and small certainties keeps growing in front of our eyes. And we feel helpless because no matter what we do, we can’t change what’s happening. This prolonged lack of certainty in some of us begets worry, anxiety, disturbing thoughts, sleeping problems, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, and the desire to self-medicate. Those are symptoms of accumulated stress that could turn into trauma if left unattended.

Trauma is a neurobiological and emotional response to a frightening, upsetting experience. It impacts the outlook, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors of a person who has experienced a traumatic event or has a history of trauma. There are four distinctive consequences of trauma:

  • Sense of powerlessness

  • Nervous system dysregulation

  • Self-devaluation

  • Disconnection from emotional self

Some of the long-lasting effects of trauma include anger, irritability, mood swings, confusion, frustration with the inability to cope, fragmented memory, disturbing thoughts, depression, anxiety, fear, isolation due to feelings of shame and guilt, sense of hopelessness, numbness.

Living in trauma is living in emotional extremes. One is impaired to self-regulate. Thus, overcoming trauma requires two things:

  1. Regaining nervous/emotional self-regulation, which is the ability to face and make sense of our feelings and emotions rather than avoid them or shut them down.

  2. Understanding our emotional self rather than ignoring it.

One-third of trauma work is teaching clients what trauma does and how the human body responds to it. The second third is reconstructing the lost sense of safety, even in the face of uncertainty, fostering reconnection with the self to reclaim control over it. As this process develops, clients grow in trust and self-compassion – key elements to overcome self-imposed isolation due to the negative perception of self, others, and the world around. The last third of trauma work is integrating the traumatic experience by changing the narrative of the adverse experience in the here and now.

Most people can overcome certain types of trauma through a natural process that includes inner resources such as temper, coping skills, resilience, and degree of self-agency. Other types of trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex trauma, developmental trauma, and trauma bonding, require a trauma-trained therapist.

In the next post, I’ll tell you how to recreate your sense of safety amid the ongoing pandemic.