As we approach two long years experiencing the global trauma of COVID, we are hoping things are winding down to allow more manageable challenges. Yet many are experiencing symptoms familiar to those experienced by survivors of any long-term or chronic developmental relational trauma (CPTSD).
I want to recognize the importance of noticing these trauma symptoms and share ideas to help us move forward. If you are struggling to feel safe and connected again, after all we’ve been through, my hope is to encourage greater compassion for yourself. Maybe you don’t , or perhaps you do identify with other long-term trauma survivors. Know that either way, people survive and can even learn to thrive by repairing and healing the changes to the nervous system trauma causes that have left us feeling fearful, unsure and alone. Understanding will also bring more awareness to mental health.
The trauma imparted by COVID
COVID has been a traumatic experience because our minds and bodies perceived threat to life and safety beyond our control. Over the past two years, the pandemic has done more than threaten our physical health — it has also threatened our social and therefore emotional health because we needed to keep apart from each other, when we are wired for connection!
But COVID is winding down. Why is this hitting me now?
When the intensity of trauma starts to subside, that is when you might start feeling trauma symptoms most.
In the midst of experiencing any trauma, when you’re still going through it, you are likely to be living with a changed nervous system – a state of hypervigilance. The thinking parts of the brain may go offline, functioning on autopilot, for putting one foot in front of the other, trying to predict what threat is next, to survive.
At other times you may be living with hypoarousal, barely noticing life around you, feeling numb. It seems your nervous system has shut off its usual responsiveness to the world in order to avoid the impact of excessive anxiety or fear around you. Whether we’re children or adults experiencing trauma, we don’t necessarily realize the long-lasting impact it’s going to have on our nervous systems, because we’re solely focused on survival.
Dealing with COVID has demanded an extended period of vigilance from most of us. Almost every day for two years, there have been new concerns or changing requirements regarding: masks, social distancing, warnings to watch for, symptoms, getting vaccines, being wary of new variants, undergoing testing, etc.
Whether you’ve been in a constant state of hyper- or hypo-arousal or one that fluctuates regarding how you cope or survive the trauma of the pandemic, this has impacted your nervous system.
After two years of dealing with the trauma of COVID, you might be:
- Experiencing grief in any of its stages. We have lived for so long hoping the threat of danger will change, waiting for things to go back to “normal” and living in a state of hyper- or hypo-arousal. Now we’re exhausted! And we don’t have the same hope that in two weeks, even two months, or at the end of the year it will end. What if life never returns to normal? Accordingly, we may be going through the 5 stages of grief including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. The pre-acceptance stages may only be starting now, or they may take some time to pass as you move through them.
- Missing physical contact and feeling exceptionally lonely. With diminished in-person contact, and with people having shifted their boundaries around physical contact, you may not be getting the same amount of social interaction or connection you once had, including touch or hugs or just being in the same room as friends or loved ones, pre-pandemic and find yourself deeply missing that.
- Overwhelmed and feeling outside of your window of tolerance. The nervous system changes with the impact of trauma. We’ve endured a long period of dysregulation – either in a hyper or hypo aroused state, or shifting between them. As we’ve lived in a chronic state of ongoing trauma, the window of tolerance begins to shrink — making it harder to think and feel at the same time.
- Using a coping mechanism that is hurting you. To deal with feeling “not right”, “out of sorts”, “crazy”, etc., caused by being outside of your window of tolerance, you may be attempting to self-soothe or manage emotional dysregulation with alcohol, drugs, sex, self-harm, food use or food restriction.
- Waiting for the other shoe to drop. People with a trauma history often find themselves expecting the next bad thing to happen: waiting for the other shoe to drop, and unable to feel safe in the present.
- Having suicidal thoughts. Tragically, the pandemic has resulted in an increase in suicidal thoughts and suicide.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you are not alone!
The world has endured the impact of a global trauma, and that’s not even considering what may have been happening in your personal life or your trauma history.
All of this has left us with changes in our nervous systems, and the need to deal with them, with trauma-informed kindness and with compassion.
So, what can we do to heal from this long-lasting (and now chronic) trauma?
Here are some ideas that may help:
- Look for the helpers. There are good people out there!
- Feel all of your emotions with the power of AND.
- Widen your window of tolerance. Fortunately, we all have the power to do this!
- Accept the title of trauma survivor. No, you don’t have to wear a t-shirt, although I may wear mine with pride!
- Practice making decisions when everything feels risky.
- Start or continue to set healthy boundaries. Tune in — not out. What feels comfortable to you?
- Recognize things to appreciate. There is always something to be grateful for — we may just have to look a bit deeper today, to get past the worry and grief!
- Cultivate compassion for yourself and others. This is one of the most powerful tools to heal trauma.
- Prioritize self-care, no matter what this looks like for you!
- Find a trauma informed therapist (even if you don’t think you have trauma).
We initially thought dealing with COVID would be a sprint. It has turned into a marathon (a few times over). We are understandably weary. But there is hope after trauma!
We now have a new capacity for empathy, at least on a small scale, for what it feels like for those with complex trauma to survive life with a nervous system constantly sounding the alarm of mortal threat. Hopefully this new understanding will help us have more compassion, decrease the stigma against those with mental illness, and create more helpers among us. Ultimately, when we work on healing from trauma, we build resilience and can experience growth after trauma.
A trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for care.
- Why I Take a Mind-Body Approach to Trauma Recovery
- You Can Reduce the Stress You’re Feeling Right Now!
- Why a Bottom-Up Approach to Trauma Therapy is So Powerful