Your Pandemic Experience and Trauma

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

“My anxiety has gone up so much since things started opening back up” is a refrain that I’ve heard quite a bit this past week or so. 

“I know! Me too! This is the week of quarantine that my hair has started to fall out,” has been my typical reply. 

Globally, we call it a pandemic. Nationally, we will grudgingly admit that what we are experiencing is a crisis. Collectively as well as individually, I only have one name for what we are all experiencing: trauma. 

I’m no history buff, but as I have studied and trained in the art and science of healing trauma, I’ve been asked to explore a few lessons in history. We all recognize war as a trauma that will lead to PTSD, and it is the psychological symptoms of soldiers that sparked a big push in trauma research. As veterans began to tell their stories of trauma, the story in many cases proceeded down two lines. First, it was the story about the actual trauma of war. Second, it was the story of returning to a deeply divided homeland with two warring sides of social and political ideologies. 

Many times in the history of our nation, Americans- soldiers and civilians, individually and collectively- have had to endure and survive the experience of actual war or living in a time of war, while also having to endure and survive the chaos and turmoil of peaceful protests turned violent and of hate speech flowing freely in the town and national squares and free press. 

Does any of this sound familiar? Not only are we enduring and surviving a global pandemic that has threatened and taken lives, we are also enduring and surviving the chaos and turmoil of a deeply divided homeland where hate speech flows freely in the town and national squares as well as in the media, where peaceful protests erupt into violence, and armed protests pose a highly observable threat to life on top of the invisible threat to life we were already trying to reckon with. 

Thanks to the years of research and the soldiers who participated in those early studies, we are now able to recognize the symptoms of trauma in other populations and related to other life-threatening events. This is why when people tell me that they are having panic attacks in stores or that their blood pressure is at an all time high, I can recognize the physiological arousal symptoms of trauma. When people tell me that they are having disturbing dreams or straight up nightmares, I can check off the sleep disturbance criteria of trauma. When I hear stories about avoiding places, people, or activities due to the anxiety it causes during this global pandemic, and I know that this meets some of the behavioral criteria of trauma. 

When I see heated debates that amount to nothing more than character assassinations over cloth masks, I want to gently insert myself and request that all parties take a deep breath and notice what is going on in their bodies. Because, that my dear, anxious friend, is what we call being triggered and responding from a place of unacknowledged and unhealed trauma. With that being said, I’m going to propose to all of us, individually and collectively, that this is too much for anyone. There is not a single central nervous system in the land that is immune to being completely overwhelmed by this. This is trauma, and it will leave its mark in us all. You will likely notice some symptoms in your body, in your mood, and in your behaviors. This is to be expected. Your body and mind are trying to help you survive. 

Thankfully, the years of research have also taught us some things about healing trauma, the first step of which is to call it what it is: trauma. Since I cannot do justice nor is it my intent try to resolve the effects of trauma, of war, or of the deep wounds we hold as a nation or as individuals in one short post, my hope is that some part of this story has helped you to recognize and name some of your own experiences during a global and national crisis. Even more, I hope it has helped you to understand that much of what you are experiencing is a normal response to an overwhelming event. 

My hope is to open up a conversation that is helpful, and since this is a big topic and full of nuance, detail, and personal experience, I’d love to continue the conversation. So far, I’ve only been able to talk about trauma and the current crisis in a very general, very abbreviated way, so if there is something you’d like to discuss more, please leave a comment in the comment section. 

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