If you are feeling inundated and overwhelmed by information about the trauma of the world right now, you are not alone. And if you are someone who experienced childhood trauma or you are in a relationship with them, you already entered this time with a lot on your plate.
In order to help survivors and their loved ones in one post, I asked two trauma-informed experts to weigh in on the topic of support for trauma survivors and their loved ones during Coronavirus. While this post is a bit longer than usual, I hope to give you trauma-informed information and insights you can use now and in the future.
You will also find links throughout the post and a recommended resources list from my guests and myself at the end.
Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, CDWF, is a clinical social worker specializing in trauma, attachment, LGBTQ issues, mindfulness, and self compassion in Severna Park, Maryland. She is the owner of The Baltimore Annapolis Center for Integrative Healing. Laura and her associates specialize in trauma-informed psychotherapy and counseling for children, adolescents and adults in Anne Arundel County, Maryland and surrounding areas. Laura is also the founder and host of the podcast Therapy Chat.
Robyn Brickel, M.A., LMFT is founder and clinical director of Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. She and her team bring a strengths-based, trauma-informed, systems approach to the treatment of mood disorders, addiction, trauma, self-harm, eating disorders, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and other mental health conditions. She is deeply committed to clinical practice, professional education and better public awareness of mental health issues. Robyn is a writer who regularly blogs about trauma and trauma-informed care.
In the context of Coronavirus, what are the challenges facing trauma survivors?
One of the most challenging things about this experience for survivors is that it is likely to activate past unresolved traumas, while at the same time, this experience is for most of us, a new traumatic experience. This can cause our nervous systems to feel like we are spiralling out of control, flying through space, or not knowing where the ground is or which way is up.
“Feeling disoriented, disconnected, in despair, having overwhelming anxiety, or a need to find something to control are all common and normal reactions.” Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, CDWF
As well, many of us are feeling overwhelming grief at the loss of ‘normalcy,’ along with grief at tangible losses like loss of employment, loss of social connection, and the very real fear of loved ones or ourselves becoming ill or losing our lives. For example, I am seeing a lot of anticipatory grief around thoughts that many people will become ill or die. Helplessness and hopelessness are high for many trauma survivors as well.
Most trauma survivors will recognize common trauma reactions in what I have written above.
I have seen trauma survivors feeling triggered back to familiar feelings from the past of scared, powerless, trapped, or frozen. Some even report awareness around their younger parts coming forward to lead, feeling that threat to their survival all over again.
Survivors may also experience a feelings flashback and yet also be present. The feelings can be so familiar that is hard to not mesh the past with the current as the threat to safety is real again. Survivors are trying to feel less badly by using some of their old coping skills of either hyperarousal or hyposarousal to deal with the pain.
“All survivors – all humans – are trying to cope with the dysregulation of these times. Everyone is doing the best they can to cope with something so unpredictable and scary!” ~ Robyn Brickel, MA, LMLFT
I have seen other clients have their strong survivor parts show up to lead the way, saying things like ‘I have already been through the worst in life, I know how to navigate that fear and I do it through surviving.’
The challenges remain the same for trauma survivors as everyone else, how to manage the anxieties and this threat to life and health. The difference for trauma survivors, in general, is they already struggle with trusting others or information while living in that space of Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop.
What would you say to a supporting partner, friend, or family member about these challenges?
I would encourage loved ones to recognize their own trauma reactions in response to the pandemic, and to do their best to empathize with what the loved one who is a trauma survivor may be feeling. Try to give yourself and others compassion because we are all going through something extremely difficult right now.
I would remind supporters that this health crisis can trigger memories or familiar feelings for your partner. Although we are all struggling with the anxiety of this situation, a trauma survivor may be triggered to times they have felt this way in the past.
It is important for everyone to remain socially and emotionally connected during this time, especially trauma survivors, as they have likely experienced trauma as more isolating and separate from the world. This time, we are all experiencing this trauma together. No one is alone in that.
It is important for everyone to do self-care right now! Partners may have to lead the way as survivors usually go to their coping skill of just surviving versus focusing on coping and caring for themselves.
The podcast I did on Therapy Chat with Laura called ‘You Might Be a Trauma Survivor and Need More Self-Care’ could be helpful for survivors and supporters along with these blog posts:
- We Need to Help More Trauma Survivors Value Self-Care
- Fuzzy Slippers Self-Care for Trauma Survivors
- 8 Ways to Feel Safe Right Now
Survivors and supporters might worry about the person with the trauma ‘losing ground.’ Is this something to be concerned about?
I would remind survivors and those who support them that the healing path is not linear. Experiences throughout our lives may cause us to move in different directions from what we expected but that doesn’t mean we are off course.
“I don’t think of ‘relapse’ or ‘regression,’ but rather noticing without judgment that trauma symptoms are activated.”
~ Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, CDWC
This one is hard to answer as it is so individualized as is treatment. Trauma survivors may have to be flexible in the path toward healing right now as life has changed – at least for now. It is important to remember that trauma processing (stage 2 trauma work) should only take place when the client is safe and stable (stage 1 trauma work). We don’t do trauma processing work when clients are still living in danger. That is unsafe.
“The trajectory of the work that anyone is doing in their therapy healing process may need to change right now. Most clients need to come back to working on present day safety and stability.” ~ Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT
That said, it doesn’t have to be ‘losing ground’ completely as trauma healing happens in relationships. What is happening right now may be reparative for some because this trauma we are all going through right now is happening in relationships.
We are all in this together.
How can people maintain self-care and self-compassion in the midst of everything?
What I have realized during this pandemic is that self care, which is always important, is now a non-negotiable part of survival. With that said, it is even more apparent that self care does not mean a spa day. In this time, we must focus on attending to our own needs as much as possible with intention and consistency.
“While self compassion is not a natural, automatic thing for most of us, being intentional about practicing self compassion makes a huge difference in many ways. It helps reduce the reactivity, which is a common trauma response, and allows for just enough space to consider more than one perspective.” ~ Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, CDWF
It doesn’t cost anything to walk outside and notice the trees or the birds singing. Or to pause what you are doing and look out the window. Try to turn toward one another as sources of support, rather than seeking to discharge pain onto the other people you live with.
One of the tenets of self compassion is ‘common humanity.’ That is easy to relate to right now as this worldwide pandemic is affecting everyone. So this shared difficult experience is something that is happening to all of us, and oddly, there is some comfort in that feeling of not being alone while we are going through this.
Maintaining self-care and self-compassion are always important! It is harder to get in some of our traditional self-care methods when businesses are closed and time may be at a premium due to so much togetherness in our homes. That said, I am inspired by the volume of free resources I have found recently: Recorded yoga classes, meditation sessions, and support groups. I started a COVID-19 resource page on my website just to be able to keep track and provide the resources to my clients. Self-care can include wearing favorite clothes or fuzzy slippers. It can include drinking your coffee while staring outside at the beautiful flowers, going for a walk, etc.
Self-compassion is a way of providing yourself self-care. Being empathetic and compassionate toward yourself as you would be to your best friend is so important.
“This is not the time to put pressure on yourself to do a huge to do list.” ~ Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT
This is a time to slow down. Try and notice what may come up for you emotionally and experience your ability to ride the wave of emotions and be ok. That is how we actually expand our window of tolerance of emotions.
So take that time to smell the flowers, listen to that mediation, practice yoga in the privacy of your own home – try out new things as there are so many free resources.
This time period can exacerbate loneliness. What simple things could families do to connect and why might this be important?
I would recommend that families spend time doing things that they enjoy together. Singing, playing games, dancing, putting puzzles together, watching television, eating meals together, taking walks together – these are fun and simple things that most of us can do to take our minds off of the fear and sadness about what is going on in the world right now.
This is an especially hard time for loneliness!
Simple ideas could be to use technology to keep you socially connected while physically distant. Play games together online, watch Broadway shows together, visit a zoo or an aquarium, have a dance party with your favorite music – all while on a virtual platform together. Reach out to people and take the opportunity when so many have slowed down to reconnect with that friend or cousin you haven’t been able to reach lately.
Why is a trauma-informed lens so important right now?
Personally, a trauma-informed lens is always important to me!
Now, as much as any time, we need to recognize that so many people are already traumatized and this new traumatic experience is something that is happening to the collective.
“If we don’t realize that we are all reacting to trauma, we have less empathy for one another.” ~ Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, CDWF
I always think a trauma-informed lens is important as it allows us to look at the larger system of life and not just this immediate tunnel.
Right now, it’s important to make sure you understand that nothing is wrong with you. What you are experiencing is happening to you, around you, and to all of us.
We need to look at the bigger picture. We need to hold tight to the ideas that we are all just doing the best we can, we are all trying to feel less badly, less scared and that life is hard right now!
We are all in this together.
Laura’s Recommended Resources
- When Your Partner Doesn’t Understand Your Trauma (Blog)
- Support for Coping During an Outbreak (podcast)
- Helping Children and Ourselves Self Regulate During A Crisis (podcast)
- Finding Gratitude & Peace: Self Compassion In Troubled Times (podcast)
Robyn’s Recommended Resources
- Loving a Trauma Survivor
- Dissociation: How People Cope with Trauma They Want to Forget
- A Compassionate Look at ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ from a Trauma-Informed Lens
- 3 Ways Healthy Relationships Heal Trauma
- How to Build Resilience as a Trauma Survivor
- We Need to Help More Trauma Survivors Value Self-Care (podcast with Laura Reagan)
Heather’s Recommended Resources
- Supporting Partners of Trauma Survivors (podcast with Laura Reagan)
- 5 Ways to Cut Yourself Slack if You Are the Partner of a Trauma Survivor
- Why Self-Care and Self-Compassion Work Together to Help Supporters of Survivors
- Why The Answer ‘I Don’t Know’ is Helping Me Understand My Partner’s Dissociative Disorder
- My Services for Partners and Supporters
To connect with my guests:
Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, CDWF
- Baltimore Annapolis Center for Integrative Healing
- Therapy Chat podcast
- Facebook /Facebook Therapy Chat
- Instagram /Instagram Therapy Chat
Robyn Brickel, MA, LMFT