My work – whether this is my person-to-person therapy services or everything I write and teach about online – is oriented towards helping those who come from trauma backgrounds (whether this is isolated trauma or complex relational trauma) heal from, make sense of, and move forward with their lives, building something beautiful after really hard things have happened.
Something tells me that, in the coming years, my work as a trauma therapist may be required more than ever.
And yet also, now, in the midst of COVID-19, I’m particularly and acutely aware that the folks I do my work with – you who come from trauma backgrounds or even you who are partnered to those who come from trauma backgrounds – may be having an especially challenging time given that COVID-19 may be triggering your trauma histories (or that of your loved one).
This is a unique experience in an extraordinary time.
Not only to live through COVID-19 and to tolerate the anxiety, isolation, and unknown that seemingly collectively all of us are experiencing, but to also have a rise in your own trauma symptoms and memories in concert and conjunct with what’s happening in the world.
If this is you or if you see this happening with your partner or loved one right now, this post today is meant for you.
This post is meant to help you, if you come from or support someone who comes from a trauma background, to see things more clearly and to provide support that you may want to employ beyond all the other great COVID-19 self-care advice that’s out there.
The impacts of coming from a trauma background.
As a trauma survivor, you may live with ghosts.
Trauma, whether this is isolated in nature (think a car crash, a robbery at knife point, or a rape) or trauma that is complex and enduring (think chronic neglect and verbal abuse from a personality disordered parent or a childhood spent hungry and in the chaos of poverty and housing insecurity), can leave us with impacts.
Imprints of the event and events.
Memories stored in your physical body and emotional reactions programmed into your nervous system.
Life, as a trauma survivor, is a little like living in a house with ghosts.
You go along in a seemingly normal environment but then – all of the sudden! – a spectre looms and you’re taken off guard.
A boss doesn’t smile at you warmly like they normally do and your mind jumps to the conclusion that you’re going to be fired.
Your partner doesn’t text by 9pm and you’re convinced they’re cheating on you.
Your best friend shares that you hurt her feelings and you start to dissociate, unable to stay present for the conversation.
These are ghosts.
As I’ve written about before, traumatic events themselves don’t necessarily lead to maladaptive behaviors and responses.
Trauma itself doesn’t necessarily create ghosts.
It’s the failure to properly metabolize on a physiological level and make sense of things on an emotional and mental level that so often leaves trauma survivors with maladaptive behaviors and responses.
The above examples are just a few concrete manifestations of how, when we aren’t properly supported in processing trauma when it happens to us, we may end up living with ghosts.
Other manifestations of trauma symptoms – our so-called proverbial ghosts – may look like clusters of any and all of the following:
- Depression and/or anxiety (including generalized anxiety);
- Irritability and being very short-tempered;
- Loss of interest in things that used to bring you pleasure, or in life itself;
- Numbing through substances and behaviors;
- Trouble concentrating;
- Insomnia and challenges sleeping (including nightmares);
- Feeling emotionally flooded and overwhelmed easily;
- An inability to visualize a future (let alone a positive future);
- Hopelessness and despair;
- Shame, a sense that you’re worthless;
- Few or no memories, feeling like your childhood is a fog or a big blank;
- Hypervigilance and mistrust;
- Body symptoms such as aches, pains, headaches;
- Substance abuse and eating disorders;
- Self-harming or destructive behaviors;
- Feeling like you have no true self, like you don’t know who you really are.
(Adapted from Janina Fisher, Ph.D.’s psychoeducational flipchart.)
For a trauma survivor, these may be the ghosts that you live with at the best of times.
And perhaps, like so many of us, you’ve worked hard to tame them, to keep them at bay, to live life alongside the spectres, but to not let them rule you.
But now, in these times of the COVID-19, you may experience your trauma ghosts more vividly, more aggressively, more dangerously.
Why and how COVID-19 may trigger your trauma background.
What is happening at a global level is, I believe, nothing short of a collective world trauma.
Trauma, by definition is:
(Saakvitne, K. et al, 2000)
(Saakvitne, K. et al, 2000)
What we are seeing on a collective level are countries and systems that cannot cope.
We are literally seeing lives threatened and taken.
What many of us are experiencing on a personal level may also look like an inability to cope if not an actual threat to our life if we ourselves are one of the vulnerable populations COVID-19 targets most aggressively.
We are living in a time the likes of which our generation have never experienced.
The world is on pause.
Most of us are now quarantined.
Economic ramifications are real and looming.
A virus has traveled to seemingly every country in the world with lightning speed.
And we’re contending with the unknown of our physical, financial, and social well-being.
The most mentally healthy and robustly resourced among us will, from time to time in the face of this, struggle with not feeling overwhelmed or despairing.
But if you are a trauma survivor, you may be having an exceptionally hard time right now.
Perhaps the feeling of isolation, of being cut off from social contact reminds you of the neglect and loneliness you felt as a child.
Maybe the novel virus makes your very life feel threatened, much like you might have felt as a child with a violent and chaotic parent.
Perhaps facing economic uncertainty and the security of your job triggers your catastrophic fear from having grown up in poverty.
Maybe the question of how and when this will all change reminds you of that all-too-familiar feeling of being unable to visualize a positive future for yourself.
Your ghosts, those spectres you know but who usually feel more in the background than the forefront, may now feel like they’re gripping you by the throat, hour to hour.
This may sound bombastic but right now it’s critical that folks who come from trauma backgrounds recognize that what’s happening on a global scale may well and truly trigger their trauma beyond what they normally experience.
In our pre-pandemic lives we may have been able to mitigate certain triggers and to support ourselves in designing lives and ways of being that account for our mental health and unique histories.
Now, however, those effective coping mechanisms may now no longer be available or feel like enough to keep your ghosts at bay.
So how, then, do you take care of yourself if you find yourself and your trauma history triggered by COVID-19?
What do you need to do to take care of yourself in a way that a non-trauma survivor may not have to do?
How to take care of yourself if COVID-19 is triggering your trauma background.
First and foremost, awareness is key.
As with everything, we want to be aware of what actually is which is why I wanted to include a psychoeducational list of trauma symptoms at the top of this article.
It’s important to understand the way that trauma symptoms can manifest and also important to be on the lookout for them in yourself in these days and weeks so that you can accurately assess if your trauma is being triggered and if your distress levels are greater than normal.
Read through the list at the top of this article. Do you see yourself there?
Are your behaviors, responses, and coping strategies feeling more strained?
Are familiar feelings beginning to surface?
Waves of anxiety or whispers of depression states that have, historically, signaled an episode or attack is coming on for you?
Pay attention and track how you’re actually doing. Don’t just numb out, tune in.
And then, get professional support.
Whether this is working with a therapist or calling your psychiatrist who you haven’t spoken to in years, whatever and however professional support looks like for you (and PS: almost every therapist I know including me and my staff at my therapy center are now offering video therapy sessions), it’s critical that you more than anyone else reach out for a higher level of care support now.
Coming from a trauma background and living with ghosts can eclipse our window of tolerance and coping skills in the best of times.
Coming from a trauma background and living with ghosts in the middle of a global pandemic is almost a guaranteed recipe for strain on your mental health.
But, like a frog in a bathtub that’s slowly warming, we may not realize how hot the water is getting until we’re nearly boiled.
Look, I’m not saying that each and every person who comes from a trauma background will fall into a depression or begin to experience panic attacks as a result of what’s playing out in the world.
But I am suggesting that you keep an extra close eye on yourself and seek out professional support if you suspect this – this escalation of symptoms – is beginning to happen.
And beyond this, you as a trauma survivor will want to take your mental health care as seriously as you would your full-time job.
You’ll want to implement the tools, strategies, systems and supports that have gotten you through your toughest, most painful times in the past.
You’ll want to commit to whatever foods and movement and entertainment and meaningful pursuits have helped steady you through shaky times.
And you may need to find and cultivate new tools, too.
Some examples of tools in these times may include:
- Create a daily routine and stick to it. What time will you wake up, begin work, stop work, go to bed?
- Make sure you tend to personal hygiene regularly. Brushing your teeth, showering, deodorant and, if you like, makeup. These little habits send powerful signals to ourselves.
- Dress for the day no matter who is or is not going to see you. Sweatpants and sports bras are great, but your esteem and well-being may be boosted by getting into a nice blouse and earrings.
- Leave your home/apartment daily. We are sheltering-in-place, yes, but we can still leave our homes appropriately. Get outside even for 30 minutes if possible.
- Move each day. Whether this is outside or doing home-based workouts, try to maintain some kind of movement schedule.
- Ensure you’re having some kind of non-work-related contact each day. Emphasis on the non-work contact. Facetime, Skype, Zoom, Marco Polo your friends and loved ones. Daily. Even for a few minutes.
- Drink and eat in ways that support your well-being versus deteriorate it. I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not a teetotaler, but I do think it behooves us all to be a little more mindful right now of what substances support us versus hinder us.
- Indulge in any and all forms of self-comfort. Here’s a list of 101 comforting activities I wrote years ago but that may feel especially helpful now. Read through them, experiment with them, make comforting yourself a top priority.
- Lower your bar. Lower your standards. Look, if you’re bickering more with your partner, if you’re only feeding your kids pasta for dinner, if you’re watching a little too much Netflix, please let this be okay. Now is NOT the time to “should” on ourselves and hold ourselves to standards of perfection.
- Be mindful of how much media you consume. The news, social media, radio, etc. Be mindful of how this impacts you and limit or reduce it altogether if it accelerated your symptoms.
- Plan for the future. Familiar to trauma survivors, an inability to visualize a positive future may be something many contend with right now. As much as possible, try to daydream or scaffold the itinerary of vacations you’ll take in 2021, lay the groundwork and take online courses about that side hustle you dream of launching. Work towards something, anything in the future.
- Find and engage in something that brings you meaning and fulfillment right now. Helping out neighbors, creating supportive online content, keeping small business owners and local service providers employed in your city, knitting a hat for your forthcoming baby niece, anything that helps you feel connected and like you’re contributing can be a great comfort now.
- Take it hour by hour, day by day. In times of crisis, grief, shock, and hardship, we’re called upon to live in the tiniest slice of time we can manage. Do not try and look too far forward if that feels too overwhelming. Take it one half hour at a time.
A special note for partners and friends of loved ones who are trauma survivors.
I see you.
You’re holding a lot, too.
You’re concerned about your loved one and you’re also likely feeling all of your feelings about the state of the world right now.
You may be left holding more of the responsibilities at home, doing more of the emotional labor, regulating yourself so that others can fall apart.
This is so much.
For you, too, please consider seeking out professional support on top of all the great self-care work you’re likely already doing.
We humans are remarkably resilient, adaptable, and persistent.
I trust, in my bones, that we will get through this, and a part of me also trusts that the world we build and experience post COVID-19 will be more connected, sane, and supportive than the one we had before.
But for now, our only job – your only job – is to take care of yourself as best you can, to weather this storm, to live with your ghosts but to not let them overwhelm you.
You, as a trauma survivor, have endured many, many hard things.
This may be another hard thing in your life but don’t forget: your past has shown you that you can do hard things, that you can endure seemingly impossible times, that you can survive.
You as a trauma survivor know how to live with ghosts and to not let them rule you.
You can do this now, too.
I care about you.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to me personally if there is anything you need right now: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be well and stay healthy.