• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

A Trauma-Informed Response to COVID19

We are witnessing a global trauma response. Be kind to one another in this.

Earlier this week, another individual and I were reflecting on the parallels between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and our nation’s reaction to COVID19 (coronavirus). As a person who is actively working through the symptoms of PTSD, he astutely noted that perhaps the general public was finally feeling on a global level what he lives through on a daily basis. Because of the horrific trauma this person has experienced in his life, he moves through the world in a very hypervigilant fashion. He is guarded and constantly on the lookout for danger. He scans his environment, evaluates every interaction for signs of danger, and chronically occupies a space of insecurity and vulnerability. That is his cognitive process moment to moment, and I think we are all getting a small taste of what that is like.

We don’t know a whole lot about COVID19 at this point but what we do know is it spreads easily and can be deadly, especially in vulnerable populations. And when things are unpredictable and capable of causing harm, our trauma responses naturally kick in. This feeling of insecurity, danger, and threat is activating the same parts of our brain that get triggered during traumatic events like combat, assault, and violence. We are currently witnessing a global response trauma, and gaining some insight into the brain’s hardwired trauma response can help us reestablish a sense of security. To address this issue, I have compiled a list of parallels between trauma reactions and our response to COVID19, as well as some ways to combat the fear and anxiety that we are all naturally feeling

1. The number one most utilized coping mechanism in response to trauma is avoidance. It is natural to avoid triggering stimuli like the news during this times like this because it can make us feel uncomfortable feelings like helplessness, despair, and hopelessness. Although natural, avoidance is an ineffective strategy for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it doesn’t help you address the issue at hand. If you bury your head in the sand and ignore what is going on around you during this time, you will essentially become a risk to yourself, your loved ones, and your community. And if you do contract the virus, you won’t know what to do to manage your symptoms. Additionally, avoidance is unhelpful, because in times of stress we desperately need support from one another. So what can we do to combat avoidance? We’ve got a previous post full of practical suggestions but here are some ideas:

  • Learn what to do if you do in fact become infected. Note: DO NOT GO TO URGENT CARE OR ER! Call your doctor and listen to their instructions. Most of us who get COVID19 will be able to self-quarantine and manage our symptoms at home.

  • Stay connected to loved ones even if you cannot see them in person. Call your mom. Check in with your grandparents. Text your siblings. Facetime your friends in other cities. Use technology to your advantage and do not allow this call for social distancing turn into social isolation

In times of trauma, we also have a tendency of going to the extremes. This is why right now we are hearing some people say, “It’s no big deal – it’s only the flu!” while also watching people stock up on toilet paper like they are preparing fro the apocalypse. We as humans have a tendency to either ignore what is going around us and pretend it is not a problem, or become completely beholden to fear and panic. Instead of hanging out in one of these two extremes, learn to occupy the gray space of the middle ground.

  • Go to trusted news sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and your county’s health department. Instagram, facebook, reddit, and other sources are not reliable. Don’t spend all day consuming news, but some boundaries around when and what information you will consume to stay adequately informed.

  • Don’t buy in to the scarcity mindset and hoard necessities like toilet paper and canned food! Gain an awareness that this is a trauma reaction in which we are creating a false sense of safety to defend against our feelings of vulnerability. Toilet paper will not keep you from getting Coronavirus. But standing in line at Costco with all the other panicked people of the world will put you and others at risk! There is no actual shortage of toilet paper or anything else, so please take what you need and leave some for your fellow humans.

3. Another element of the trauma response is feeling out of control and powerless. This is especially true when the threat is unseen – like a virus. But the truth of the matter is that in any situation, pandemic or otherwise, there are elements we are in control of, and elements we are not in control of. For the sake of your mental health, focus on what you do have control over.

  • Even though many of us are working from home or caring for littles all day now that schools and daycares are closed, you can still keep a daily routine. Try to go to bed and wake up at your regular time. Keep your regular rhythms. Shower and get dressed even if your not leaving the house. All of these practices provide structure and will ground you during times of uncertainty.

  • Maintain control over things that are still in your control, like exercise, food consumption, sleep, self-care, and other habits.

  • You are still in control of your schedule, so exercise wise time management skills. If you are working from home, set up your workspace in a way that facilitates workflow and productivity. Get out of bed. Turn off the Real Housewives in the background. And work the way you would if your boss were sitting next to you. If you are trapped at home and not working, then use your time off wisely. Don’t just binge watch Netflix and sleep all day – be productive! Get a head start on spring-cleaning. Take that online class you’ve always wanted to take. Practice your hobbies. Stay engaged!

4. Be aware that the anxiety associated with trauma will show up in sneaky ways. This may look like poor sleep, stomach aches, acne, irritability, increased substance use or self-destructive habits.

  • Recognize these symptoms as your natural stress response and honor the messages your body is sending you. Anxiety is an adaptive feeling that our brains use as a signal that danger is present and we need to respond. Not panic. Not ignore. Respond.

  • Focus on self-care when you can. Yes your gym may be closed and dining at your favorite restaurant is not an option right now, but you can still carve out intentional time for self-care each day. Go for a walk. Do yoga in your living room. Give yourself a pedicure. Read that book that’s been on your nightstand for the past six months. Get creative!

  • Start or continue with therapy. Now is the perfect time to learn about your stress response and get acquainted with what unhealthy coping strategies you have a tendency to turn to in times of stress. Much of therapy is taking what you learn in the therapy room and applying to real life stressors. Well, we all have a real life stressor staring us in the face, so rather than panic, use this as an opportunity to practiced. Even though many public places are closed during this time, most therapists are still open for business! Ask about online sessions via video – I offer them as do most therapists I know!


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