COVID-19 as a Traumatic Event
Since the beginning of the pandemic, our lives have been irrevocably changed. Many of us are now socially isolated and unable to do the things we once loved to do, all while facing an uncertain future. The virus poses a constant emotional and physical threat to people worldwide. No one is immune from the impact of COVID-19, and for some, the virus has left families in a state of shock and grief.
When someone is diagnosed with COVID-19, individuals and families are immediately thrown into a state of panic and fear that can be quite traumatic.
A trauma is an event, or a series of events, that is perceived as being emotionally, mentally, and/or physically threatening. Just as with COVID-19, trauma is a serious public health concern and can lead to significant emotional, mental, and physical problems.
Signs and Symptoms of Trauma
The experience of trauma can feel like an assault on the mind and body. Survivors of trauma often describe signs and symptoms that include a variety of feelings, thoughts, and physical aches and pains.
- Difficulty concentrating
- Intrusive reminders
- Irrational thoughts
Aches and Pains
- Stomach pain
- Racing heartbeat
- Muscle tension
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the signs and symptoms related to trauma typically resolve themselves in days, weeks, or months. However, they may not ease and may gradually become worse. Trauma can place your nervous system into overdrive, where some people are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a serious mental health condition that is treatable by a physician or other mental health professional. An intervention by way of talk therapy and/or medication can help to stabilize and restore someone with PTSD back to optimal health.
How COVID-19 Is Unique
Research has shown that many of us have experienced some type of childhood trauma. However, trauma can also be caused by events that impact us as adults, such as divorce, domestic violence, natural disaster, a serious illness or injury, and the death of a loved one.
COVID-19 certainly causes severe illness and death, and has also uniquely impacted the entire world. The pandemic creates fear because we do not yet fully understand the virus and its mutations, how to best treat those who are ill, how likely it may spread under different circumstances, nor do we understand what the longtime effects might be. All of these factors may lead to a sense of lack of control and continued anxiety.
As individuals, we have experienced changes in the way we work, socialize, and recreate. Many have lost jobs or are working from home, and children may not return to school any time soon. We are socially isolated from loved ones who provide us with essential connections. Collectively, we are exposed to social, racial, and public health policies that create challenges to maintaining healthy communities. The sheer number of stressors we all feel, coupled with a lack of support, makes it even more difficult for those who are ill or grieving to recover.
While we are all feeling some impact, the pandemic has revealed some deep-seated health inequities for people of color. Researchers are continuing to find significantly higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death among Black, Hispanic, and Asian patients when comparing the medical charts to white individuals diagnosed and treated for COVID-19. This exposes socio-economic vulnerabilities of these communities, as well as disparities in accessing proper medical care. The result is widespread grief and trauma to entire communities.
Things You Can Do
Even with the challenges and barriers before us, healing from trauma and grief is possible. There are things to help you cope and heal through this process.
As humans, we thrive on routines that carry us through our days and serve our emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Engaging in daily activities — waking up at the same time every day, taking a shower each morning, or cooking a healthy dinner each day — can help provide you with a sense of stability and structure that is not only good for your body, but for your mental health as well. If your routines have changed since the beginning of the pandemic, try re-establishing them or establishing new routines — however small — that can help you get back on track.
All of us have heard that physical activity is important to maintain optimal health. Today, your regular exercise patterns may not be as they were: Your gym may be closed, or you may feel unsafe going there. If you are recovering from COVID-19, your ability to engage in regular movement may be very limited. To help you decide what might work best for you, the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) Sports Medicine Institute in New York City recently published a set of guidelines and considerations for returning to exercise after living with mild to moderate COVID-19. Finding little ways to stay physically active can help to elevate your mood and keep your body healthy, regardless of your circumstances.
Many of us are spending the majority of our time in our homes. That gives us plenty of opportunities to watch television, read the news, or browse social media. All of these platforms expose us to almost constant information about the virus. Consuming too much of these details frequently can bring us to a point of saturation with the pandemic. Limiting COVID-19 coverage allows you to invest your time and energy in other activities, such as communicating with social support groups, or exercising that are integral right now.
Being socially isolated can have long-term negative consequences. We are, after all, social beings. Socializing undoubtedly looks different than it did a year ago, but it remains possible. Call friends or family members regularly to check in with one another. Schedule a virtual visit using any of the free teleconferencing applications that are available. Send emails, notes, and cards to friends and family who live near and far. Connecting with others may serve to lift your spirits and reduce stress.
Life is stressful, particularly now. Implementing some of these tips may help to reduce the stress you feel, but you may also find that they are not enough. In the end, you may feel an ongoing sadness, helplessness, or hopelessness. You might benefit from more structured emotional support by way of your peers or by a mental health professional. There are informal and formal peer support offerings, such as Facebook or online COVID-19 peer support groups listed here [link to Resources page once made]. Mental health professionals continue to provide counseling in their offices or online. There are also virtual services, such as BetterHelp and Talkspace, where you can be matched with a mental health professional who can help you process your stress, trauma, and grief in a safe space.
Connect, Advocate, Respond, Empower.
Coronavirus jolted so many of us into an unknown place of loss, fear, and trauma. We’re here to work together to demand the change we need to end the pandemic and support its survivors.
Find healing in support groups with other COVID-19 survivors. Read up on public resources available to you.
Together, we share our stories in hopes that others can learn from them, and that our fellow survivors can find healing in knowing that they are not alone.
Help stop this pandemic and prevent more people from experiencing the loss we know intimately.