COVID-19 Trauma: Caring for Ourselves and Others

In March 2020, the entire context of our lives changed essentially overnight. One year later many of us are still picking up the pieces of our pre-COVID lives and fighting to adapt to constantly shifting norms and expectations. Many of us have lost touch with the dreams and values that gave our lives added meaning and made the future seem brighter. We may feel a little dead inside, burdened with the sense that there’s nothing to look forward to, or that we’ve lost our sense of self. All of us have been traumatized by COVID in one way or another. While some may be more affected than others this is a universal experience, and understanding how this trauma could be affecting you is a good first step towards coping with your emotions and beginning to heal.

What is COVID trauma?

Trauma is defined as an emotional response to a deeply distressing and/or disturbing experience. Some possible components of COVID trauma include:

A lack of predictability

Before the pandemic most of us had a grounding sense of routine that gave structure to our lives and told us what the day, month, and year would bring. Routines can give us a sense of control over our lives and decrease anxiety – with fewer unknowns we have less to worry about. After a lockdown we thought would only last a few weeks extended to over a year, most of us probably feel a lack of control and an overwhelming sense of worry that we don’t know what the future will bring. Without faith in the future we can struggle to make plans and set goals.

Combined isolation and lack of space

These days how often we see our friends and family is no longer a choice, but a circumstance forced upon us. We are often alone when we don’t want to be or forced to be in close proximity to others constantly whether we like it or not. Both isolation and a lack of personal space indicate a lack of control over our physical bodies and headspace that can be highly stressful. These factors can be compounded by reduced access to coping mechanisms, including hobbies and social networks.

A shifting sense of self and purpose

Our work, relationships and personal goals have all been impacted by lock downs and quarantine. These parts of our lives contribute to our sense of self and purpose, and their disruption or change can affect our perception of our self-worth. Are we the same person without the job, social life and pursuits that define us to ourselves and others? What drives us to keep going when the touchstones we build our lives on shift below our feet? Without that grounding sense of purpose it is difficult to set goals for ourselves and find time for life-enriching activities – we have transitioned from.

Grief

We call the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior grief. Grief can show itself as shock, disbelief, denial, anxiety, anger, sadness and loss of sleep or appetite. Most of us think of grieving in relation to mourning the passing of a loved one, but it can apply to many other situations, including loss of a romantic relationship, loss of a job, loss of social connections, or simply loss of a sense of control over our lives. All of these losses can be stressful and even traumatic, and many of us have had to endure multiple kinds of losses piling up over the course of the pandemic.

Burnout

When COVID began many of us dipped into our deepest reserves of energy, focus, and self-control to quickly adapt and juggle the competing demands of family, work, school and self-care. At the time many of us believed that this kicking into overdrive would be temporary, a sprint that we just had to survive. One year later we are still tapping those mental, physical, and emotional resources to get through the day and may be running on empty. Our culture puts a lot of pressure on us to be productive and happy at all times, and our total exhaustion combined with failing to meet these unrealistic standards is a huge blow to our resilience and drive. Recent studies show that the overwhelming majority of Americans are experiencing “burnout,” the feeling that we just can’t do it anymore. Burnout can manifest as generalized anxiety and depression, and makes everyday responsibilities feel simply impossible.


How to cope with COVID Trauma

While increasing vaccination rates give us hope for going “back to normal,” many aspects of our lives may be forever changed – part of that change is internal. While we may be tempted to brush off the severity of our feelings just to get through the day, eventually we have to pause and take stock of our physical and mental health and chart a path forward. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin the healing process.

Understanding that positivity and optimism are different

In tough times like these messages like “look on the bright side” are the last thing we want to hear. “Staying positive” sounds superficial and out of touch – how can we be happy when so many terrible things are going on around us? However, there is a difference between being blindly positive and staying optimistic. Staying optimistic means acknowledging that this is a difficult time while maintaining your belief in your own ability to cope. It’s the recognition of the challenges before us tempered with the assurance that the world is not ending, and that we’re headed towards a better future together. We recommend this video by Simon Sinek explaining the difference

Ask for help

Many of us may feel that in light of the worldwide impact of the pandemic, our friends and family will be too wrapped up in their own troubles to pay attention to ours. However, even in our lowest moments helping others can give us a sense of wellbeing and empowerment. Ask for help and be specific. Text a friend that you need their support, even if it’s just through a ten-minute phone call. Verbalizing what you need can be therapeutic in itself, and through comforting and being comforted we can find the strength to accept loss and trauma and process it in a healthy way.

Hitting refresh

This past year our society transitioned from being goal-oriented to just getting through it. Everyday tasks are more difficult than before, and many of our higher aspirations have had to take a back seat as we remain in survival mode. When life is reduced to subsistence we can feel like ants in an ant hill, scrambling from task to task without agency or vision. How can you hit refresh and revitalize yourself in this environment? It’s easier said than done, but one key practice to keep our hearts and minds sharp and focused is to disengage strategically. Identify practices that give you energy and bring you joy, whether that’s taking a walk around your neighborhood, reading your favorite poet, or dancing to your favorite song. Put ten minutes on your calendar every day to engage in this activity, and treat it as an obligation as important as a meeting or a doctor’s appointment. Whatever it is, the key is to reconnect with something you love that brings you joy on a regular basis, and remind yourself of the things that make life worth living: our values, our passions, our interests.

In addition to these skills, therapist can help you set a game plan for addressing the shifting priorities, challenges, and opportunities of post-COVID life, and give you tools to foster your own wellbeing and look to the future with confidence and hope.