Make no mistake, a pandemic is traumatic.
Alyssa Siegel, a licensed mental health therapist practicing in Portland, Oregon, notes that COVID-19 “turned our world on its head dramatically and seemingly overnight.” We have all suffered varying degrees of disruption, isolation, anxiety, illness, and loss—not to mention uncertainty as the pandemic seems to infinitely extend and recreate itself. “It’s very hard to heal from something that is still causing us harm,” she adds.
Looking for signs of COVID trauma is something mental health professionals like Siegel will likely be engaged in for some time.
The way we respond to trauma and our ability to process it will determine whether or not the pandemic has lasting and long-term effects, essentially getting “stuck” in our system or being released from it. According to Siegel, the nature and duration of trauma, along with personal factors such as our level of resilience prior to the event, help determine how quickly we’re able to feel safe and talk about what’s happened. How solid and validating a support system we have is also a factor.
Siegel says almost all of her clients report feeling exhausted and depleted, with an understandable rise in depression and anxiety. Beyond those symptoms, here are some signs that someone may need help addressing COVID trauma:
- Overwhelm. You find yourself experiencing panic, dissociation, and dread. Your reaction to external stimuli is outsized and flooding; while you once may have experienced disappointment, now you experience devastation or outrage. This has come up for many when confronted with a person they believe isn’t following responsible pandemic protocols.
- Distraction. You continue to find it difficult to concentrate and focus on work and other tasks. Some describe feeling numb, disoriented, lethargic. Even once-enjoyable events or experiences feel uncomfortable and unappealing.
- Hypervigilance. You find yourself on high alert all the time and experience fatigue from risk assessment decision-making. Your life becomes smaller as you minimize people and situations that you fear may cause you danger or stress.
- Trauma bonding. You form or deepen relationships based on a shared experience of trauma and find it a challenge to talk or think about anything else. When each person is in a heightened state of dysregulation, sometimes these relationships can be harmful and reinforce rather than relieve suffering.
- Doomscrolling. You fixate on the news and your social media feeds, leading to a skewed understanding of the world with a disproportionate representation of suffering relative to your life. You may also become more myopic in your intake, avoiding information that doesn’t align with your worldview.
- Unhealthy comfort. Habits that were once for pleasure or fun are now something you need to get through the day. Your consumption of food, alcohol, or other substances and other behaviors no longer feel in your control.
Practices to mitigate the effects of COVID trauma
While the pandemic made us all feel very isolated and very vulnerable, Siegel observes how having people you can connect to in deep and meaningful ways helps to mitigate some of the trauma caused by this highly unusual situation. The people she has seen fare the best throughout the pandemic are those who have deeply meditative or connective practices that they have either adopted or maintained throughout.
Suggested practices include:
- Growing and cooking healthy, nutritious food
- Hiking, cycling, kayaking, or other outdoor activities
“This spiritual grounding can help reduce the impact of trauma in our body,” Siegel notes. “It gives our nervous system a change to reset and to feel safe again. Over time this builds the resilience needed not just to endure but to grow during high-stress periods.”
Helping someone with signs of COVID trauma
Siegal notes that as some people have never before experienced mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, addiction, even suicidality, they might may not recognize the symptoms. So the most important thing she suggests you can do if you see signs of trauma related to or resulting from COVID is to encourage that person get help. “This might be supporting them through the process of finding a counselor or connecting with a doctor, which can be an intimidating and complex process even when you are not struggling.”
Also, she finds that letting let this person know you are available to listen can be tremendously helpful, though she adds that most people don’t want problem-solving or even vague encouragements. Along those lines, unless someone asks for help with a specific task, try to refrain from asking them what they need. Instead offer some simple ideas like to going for a walk to help them move from the stuckness or apathy that can make even leaving the house difficult. If they remain fearful of in-person events, help them acclimate by accompanying them to smaller events, though be careful to respect their boundaries if they are not comfortable interacting with others. “Regardless of whether they are responding to something that is real or rational, their feelings are valid,” Siegel says.
Be mindful of your own emotional bandwidth. In general, Siegel finds that distancing yourself from a relationship that has become toxic is a healthy choice. While what is toxic is personal but for most it involves feeling judged, blamed, criticized, or disrespected for your lifestyle choices. “It can be incredibly hard and painful to distance yourself from a connection that has become toxic but the long-term benefits for our physical and mental health are worth it. Healthy relationships involve being able to engage in cooperative and kind conversation and offer empathy, respect, and thoughtfulness and can usually survive disagreements, even big ones.”
An earlier version of this article appeared at Spirituality & Health.