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What You’re Experiencing Might Be COVID Trauma (And What You Can Do About It)

COVID

Here we are, almost a year into the COVID pandemic.

This time last year, we knew it was serious. We knew it was spreading. But we didn’t yet know that we would soon go inside and have yet to come back out.

This time last year, most of us didn’t even own a mask. This time last year, we didn’t worry about running out of any food or essential items (or really even think about it). This time last year, we hardly noticed if we felt a little cough coming on. This time last year, we saw family and friends regularly. This time last year, we drove to work each day, saw colleagues, and interacted with acquaintances and strangers with ease. This time last year we were making plans for taking time off and visiting loved ones. This time last year, we had so much freedom to go where we wanted to go, see who we wanted to see, and do what we wanted to do.

Fast-forward to now, and everything has changed. Most of us canceled our plans, isolated from our loved ones, and pared our lives down to the smallest possible circles. We lived through an entire year of an existential threat – a silent, invisible, and constant threat to our lives and our way of life. We have worried about our loved ones. We have worried about ourselves. We have had to learn about, attend to, and think about things that we never had to before. And we have to think about them all. the. time. Your life as it is today is likely completely different than it was one year ago. You have to be aware of everywhere you are going, everything you are doing, and everyone you are seeing. Your brain can’t ease into routines and go on autopilot (which brains love to do because it is so much easier). When there is a threat (and there have been many this year) we have to be constantly aware and vigilant.

And it’s important to acknowledge what this does to our brains. Our brains have one main job: to stay alive. This is the prime directive, and it means that our minds are programmed to be remarkably sensitive to anything that feels threatening to that singular goal. It means that our brains are very good at picking up cues of danger or discomfort, and in fact, our brains are drawn to attend to this information in order to be helpful, and in order to keep us safe and comfortable.

This means that when we have an experience of a threat, our minds and bodies react aggressively. A threatening event sets off all of our alarms. We become tense, our hearts race, and our bodies get ready to fight or flee. This is easy to understand this when it comes to specific events. Many of us understand what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is, and we associate it with specific and discrete events that were threatening and frightening. In response to an event like this, individuals can experience hypervigilance and hyperarousal (being very sensitive to threats, very aware of possible problems, and very on edge about them), anxiety, avoidance, withdrawal and detachment, numbness, intrusive thoughts (unwanted thoughts about frightening things), disconnection and dissociation, pessimism, difficulties concentrating, irritability, and difficulties sleeping.

While this is absolutely a presentation of PTSD, it is important to also recognize that chronic stressors and threats can have a very similar effect. Our brains react to these as well, though it might not be with the same full-system response, which makes it a little more difficult to identify and understand. When we are exposed to chronic and more subtle threats, we may experience feeling a little more fatigued, a little more irritable, a little more anxious, or a little more hopeless. We may experience feeling numb or disconnected. We might find ourselves losing our patience, not caring so much about showing up on time or meeting deadlines, or not feeling like doing anything at all. Without a specific event to point to, it is easy to become self-critical, and to assume that this is a failure or weakness.

It is not.

It is a trauma response. It is a response in your mind and body to a chronic threat – one that you cannot control or fix, that threatens your daily life, your health, and your relationships. These types of chronic threats and stressors leave your body and mind constantly stuck in a state of heightened awareness. It saps your energy, wears down your resources, and makes just about everything feel more difficult.

Without recognizing this as trauma, it is far too easy to assume that we are “just not handling it well” or to believe that we are weak or faulted. Instead, we need to recognize that we are reacting to a constant state of threat, and it changes how our bodies and minds function. Many sources are finding that mental health has declined and trauma-based responses have increased. Some studies are even finding that exposure to the threats and stressors of COVID-19 have resulted in PTSD. Others are working to describe the impact of the pandemic and the symptoms it causes, with a predictable pattern of symptoms emerging in response to the stress. It is essential that we recognize that what we are collectively experiencing is trauma, and essential that we understand that it has real and significant impacts on how we feel and how we behave.

So, what does this mean?

  • It means that we need to talk about what we are experiencing and normalize it.
  • It means that we have to be patient with ourselves and others.
  • It means that we may have to be more forgiving of ourselves and others.
  • It means we need to acknowledge all that has happened and see our discomfort as part of a reaction to it.
  • It means that we may need to change our expectations for ourselves for a while
  • It means that we may need to change our expectations for others for a while (your parents, your children, your coworkers, your neighbors, your service providers – they are all living it, too, and may not be able to perform in the way that they did before, or in the way that you want them to)
  • It means that we need to do whatever we can to help build our resources back up
  • It means we probably can’t be as productive as we used to be
  • It means we might not feel like ourselves for a while as we endure through the remainder of this.
  • It means that we need to ask for help when we can, and offer help when we can.
  • It means that even as things start to change for the better, it might take us a little while to feel better

What can you try?

  • Share your experience and listen to others’ experiences
  • Listen to your body; rest it, move it, and nourish it
  • Create some variability in your routines and activities
  • Work on setting reasonable expectations for your day
  • Set routines where you can. When there is so much that is unpredictable, having some predictability in your day is a little less work for your brain. Consider what is important or essential in your day, as well as what helps you to relax, and try out different routines for practicing those each day.
  • Breathe, meditate, and stretch – these are all activities that help you unhook from all of the noise, even for a moment
  • Get sunshine where you can (it’s coming, Iowans, I promise!)
  • Try new things. When we don’t have a lot of variety in our lives, it can help to have a little novelty where we can get it. Try new music, new books, new foods, new teas, new workouts – even if you don’t end up liking them, it still helps to experience something new
  • Start with very small and reasonable goals, get them in place, and build from there (e.g., start with committing to showering each day, then add a ten minute walk each day, etc.)
  • Watch out for self-medicating. This is a natural way that often appeals to us to soothe difficult emotions. These are behaviors such as eating, drinking alcohol, substance use, and even napping. These are things that help us to feel good in the moment, and are not inherently bad, but which can be a problem when we do them too much (or when they are our only strategies). Monitor what they actually offer you, and add other helpful things to cope.
  • Acknowledge your losses, and grieve them. Loss of time, loss of comfort, loss of enjoyment, loss of opportunity, loss of loved ones, and any other losses that you have experienced. Give yourself space to mourn what you had wished for, or what could have been. (these can be very easy to invalidate; remember that invalidating a feeling rarely makes it go away)
  • Take a moment each day to check in with yourself, see how you’re doing, and ask yourself what you need to help your day feel a little easier. If you have the energy (and it is completely okay if you don’t), do the same for someone you love.

It is completely normal to be having a hard time right now. You aren’t broken, you’re just doing the best you can in an impossible situation. Be kind to yourself, and be kind to others.

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