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Trauma in the Time of COVID

Mary-Lauren O’Crowley, NCC, MA 

When most of us think of trauma, our mind likely flashes to the most extreme circumstances, including war; however, many of us, whether knowingly or unknowingly, have experienced a traumatic event in our lifetime. Losing friends and family members, witnessing violence, incurring abuse, and living through a natural disaster are just a few of the ever growing list of experiences and events that can cause distress and in some cases, inflict injury to our nervous systems. Enter COVID-19, a pandemic that rapidly and mercilessly upended the lives and threatened the safety of every human on the planet. The impact of the virus, however, would likely be more than just physical, with mental and emotional well-being taking a toll. 

While exposure to trauma is common, with roughly 90% of the population experiencing at least one potentially traumatic event in their lifetime, reactions vary widely and many will not yield a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. Just as the coronavirus impacts each individual differently so, too, does trauma. Even without meeting the criteria for PTSD, many of us can experience traumatic stress in one form or another. 

Because COVID-19 is in fact a very real threat to our survival, our nervous systems are operating from a state of hypervigilance, or hyperreactivity, wherein we are more likely to experience feelings of panic, anxiety, increased heart rate, hyperventilation, irritability, and even dizziness. These symptoms, while uncomfortable and even unbearable at times, are the body’s innate way of dealing with a perceived threat. They are often not dangerous and can be managed through a combination of relaxation, mindfulness, grounding, talk therapy, and in certain circumstances, medication.   

If we think of a hypervigilant nervous system as one that is overreactive, aroused, or even fearful, the idea is then to implement strategies that will aid relaxation and create a sense of comfort and safety. Deep breathing is one of the most effective ways to calm ourselves down, primarily because it elicits the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s rest and relaxation response. By inhaling through the nose and exhaling slowly through the mouth, the nervous system then triggers respiration and heart rate to slow. The key here is to draw out the exhale for more counts than the inhale. Another way to address and mitigate symptoms of traumatic stress is through grounding. Grounding is the process of distracting ourselves from distressful thoughts or feelings by bringing our awareness back to the present moment. Grounding can be as simple as wrapping ourselves in a soft blanket, eating something sour, stretching, or even repeating a comforting phrase to ourselves.   

Traumatic stress can cause a range of physical and emotional symptoms that can make it feel as though we are out of control of our own minds and bodies. We do not have to suffer in silence, however, as therapy can provide a safe environment wherein the client can learn coping skills to mitigate both the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of distress. Cognitive behavioral therapy which focuses on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can aid the client in identifying thinking errors that exacerbate discomfort within the body, incite difficult emotions, and even cause unhealthy behaviors like substance use. Somatic experiencing, another therapeutic technique, uses the sensations in the body to provide a map for our traumatic stress. This body-oriented approach can be very effective in addressing the physiological symptoms of trauma.  

If you or someone you know has been impacted by the coronavirus and would like to talk to a professional counselor in Chicago, please at (312) 578-9990 or reach out to us online to schedule a consultation with one of our licensed therapists.

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