COVID-19 Response Plan: Expected Traumatic Symptoms of the Coronavirus Pandemic

April 23, 2020

Expected Traumatic Symptoms of the Coronavirus Pandemic
Part 2: Coronavirus Response Plan
By Chris Gearing and Dr. Sylvia Gearing

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate the lives of Americans, many psychologists are beginning to consider the psychological fallout once the quarantine is over. On behalf of Gearing Up, Dr. Sylvia Gearing explains many of the mental health consequences she is concerned about for her clients over the next few weeks of quarantine and possibly years after the coronavirus panic has ended.

Helplessness Returns: For those of us with previous traumas, the current COVID-19 crisis evokes a similar sense of helplessness, isolation, and overarching sense of vulnerability. Like most traumas, the coronavirus pandemic is not the result of choices we made in the past. Our lives were disrupted without any regard for our upcoming plans or future hopes and dreams. The coronavirus imposes its own timeline. What’s worse, there seems to be little clear communication regarding what happens next. Constantly shifting descriptions, projections of devastation, and confusion on how to truly stop it once and for all keep many of us spinning and seemingly treading water. The coronavirus is fully in command of our national attention. It not only dominates concerns regarding physical health and safety, but the entire world is now experiencing a collective trauma with the psychological fallout that grows worse each day we remain in quarantine.

Loss of Routines: Routine can be grounding for many of us. No matter what daily stress we are shouldering, we usually have some part of our day we love and look forward to each morning. The COVID-19 trauma has been even more impactful due to the sudden and sustained disruption of our lives. Within a matter of days or weeks, entire cities and states were shut down and placed under “stay at home” or “shelter in place” orders for weeks or months into the future. We collectively lost so much so quickly: a weekly dinner at our favorite restaurant, the sense of community and spirituality in attending a live religious service, the excitement and joy of live sports, the ability to enjoy live music with friends, a vacation we had been planning for months if not years, etc. You may even miss going into work on Monday mornings at this point.

Routines tend to get a bad reputation in popular media (“Break out of your routine!”), but we anchor much of our lives in the predictable aspects of daily routine. Certainty and consistency are very important psychological values since they offer a sense of control. The rhythm of daily activities instills a belief that while we may not have perfect control, we have significant control over the direction and purpose of our lives. The coronavirus pandemic has robbed us of those certainties. Now we are shuttered in our homes, hidden behind masks and gloves, and left with an uncertain economic future that is only beginning to take shape.

Lack of Response: Currently, many of us can only wait it out. However, waiting pales in comparison to healthcare professionals risking their own safety actively fighting the virus in clinics and hospitals around the country. Our lives are now defined by the course of the virus and its waxing and waning cycles. As mentioned before, those with trauma in their past will be well acquainted with feelings of powerlessness. We can only idly witness events that keep us locked inside, and we are unable to influence any significant change beyond self-quarantine.

“Learning” To Be Traumatized: Many of us think of trauma as a discreet event with a beginning and ending and “once it’s over, it’s over.” But that’s not how the brain works. The brain learns and adapts to new and novel situations. Once we learn or experience something, we can access those memories or regain that knowledge quickly. It turns out that our susceptibility to trauma functions in a similar way. If the brain has built the neural networks for trauma, those brain networks can be easily reawakened with minimal provocation. Any feelings or experiences similar to those traumatic memories from our past can not only reawaken those original brain networks, but also deepen and worsen our negative reactions to our current set of circumstances. Think of it like placing two slides on top of each other in a projector. Your mind is experiencing both traumas at once, and they begin to multiply and refract one another in new and terrible ways.

What A Difference A Day Makes: Adding to these instant difficulties, the duration of the pandemic is also centrally important. Powerlessness and the host of negative emotions it generates grows rapidly in sustained trauma. For instance, imagine being held prisoner for a single day versus an entire year. One day would be bad enough, but an entire year would be something truly life changing. The longevity of the pandemic lockdown is exponentially compounding the emotionally dysregulating impact.

Digging Deeper: With previous traumas compounding our emotional and psychological response to the pandemic, we may feel far more deeply and severely than those around us. We may find it difficult to concentrate on anything other than our frightening thoughts, surging emotions, and tragic expectations. Being able to reliably direct our thoughts and actions in the face of strong emotions is a fundamental psychological skill. However, the tsunami of emotions from the pandemic may overwhelm our ability to self-govern. As a result, we may struggle with retaining our focus on the tasks of the day. With the current onslaught of stressors hitting our nerve centers, our success may be inconsistent if not impossible.

For more information regarding trauma and the psychological impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, please stay tuned to our ongoing blog series at www.GearingUp.com. If you or a loved one have been psychologically impacted by COVID-19, please contact our office to schedule an intake appointment to address potential issues before they can fully take hold.

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