COVID-19 Response Plan: The Coronavirus Pandemic Is A Collective Trauma

April 22, 2020

Understanding The Coronavirus Pandemic As A Collective Trauma
Part 1: Coronavirus Response Plan
By Chris Gearing and Dr. Sylvia Gearing

At its core, trauma is a condition of helplessness and powerlessness. When our efforts to influence our environment are no longer working, we desperately push to solve the problem and restore order to the universe. The less change we are able to produce, the harder we fight. When our efforts fail repeatedly and chronically, our understanding of our lives begins to crack and break. We cannot believe this is happening. We are used to having such considerable control over our environment – why isn’t it working anymore? When our helplessness and powerlessness reach a tipping point, we become emotionally dysregulated and fully lose our grip. We are pushed beyond what our minds can tolerate, and the result can be truly devastating.

Other than times of war, our country has never been faced with a set of conditions so disruptive, so pervasive, and so immediately impactful to virtually every part of our lives. Even without being personally affected by a case of coronavirus, each of us have been forced to question our health, the safety of our loved ones, our economic safety, and more. Making matters worse, we must face these challenges without access to the family and friends who make our lives more stable and comforting. Our routines of daily living such as going to the grocery store now involve masks, gloves, and paranoia when interacting with others. What was once a simple and even enjoyable errand is now beset by doubt, desperation, and fear of an invisible enemy that threatens us all.

The mental health effects, both short and long term, have yet to be defined and fully articulated since this kind of global pandemic is unprecedented in modern history. As previously mentioned, the best comparisons we have are to wartime scenarios with clear battle lines and rules of engagement. Now, we can’t even hug the ones we love if they aren’t quarantined with us. Trauma experts speculate that these recent events have introduced a new kind of trauma that holds the potential for worldwide fallout for many years to come. This perfect storm of factors (e.g., personal health concerns, social isolation, economic uncertainty, lack of clear information, disruption of our lives, etc.) is already causing a particularly impactful and profound trauma that is difficult to fully predict. Here’s the worst part: this is only the beginning.

Trauma has been linked to multiple mental health issues as either the root cause or the catalyst for a new and more severe wave of symptoms. Trauma related conditions include anxiety disorders, clinical depression, panic disorders, addiction behavior, eating disorders, and much more. How many of the people you know are experiencing regular anxiety? Do you have a friend whose drinking has gone from “social” to “concerning?” When trauma has entered our lives, it must be addressed by skilled professionals in a timely manner or individuals risk years of pain, self-sabotage, and harsh consequences on the other side of quarantine.

The Complications of Complex Trauma

Most of us have a history with trauma whether or not we consciously recognize it. Current estimates indicate that most people have between five to seven different major traumas across the lifespan (for more information, see the work of Dr. John Briere). Although many of us don’t necessarily recognize these difficult events as traumatic at the time, their effects are felt for years to come and reshuffle our lives in powerful ways. As children and teens, many of us were presented with a series of events and circumstances that were beyond our control. Nothing we did made a difference in what was happening. Even though we may take the reins as adults, we likely have some kind of history with helplessness and trauma from our early lives.

No matter the particular situation, the effects were significant. The list of potential sources is endless: addiction, depression, an emotionally absent parent, financial hardship, abuse (mental, physical, sexual, or emotional), traumatic invalidation, a chaotic, ever changing home life, etc. We were presented with myriad experiences that were unfair and nothing we did changed the events or the outcome.

Many people fall into a state of learned helplessness as a result. This is when our perspective is permanently shifted to being pessimistic, hopeless, and helpless. What’s worse is how we apply these beliefs. We blame ourselves. We think things will never change. We think the whole world is a bad place where only bad things happen. As a result, we discontinue any efforts to change what is happening in our lives. Instead, life simply becomes about surviving the moment at hand.

Unfortunately, these experiences occurred when our developing minds were not ready for them. They generate powerful emotions that we often do not have the equipment or energy to fully process at the time. Without excellent coaching and parenting, many of us avoid and compartmentalize our feelings in an effort to preserve energy and emotional stability.

However, burying our emotions is not the same as processing them. They stay with us and slowly emit toxins that often lead to severe psychological disruption. Over time, a more poisonous and dark psychological picture may emerge that includes periodic loss of emotional control, a tendency to “go numb” in an effort to keep going, and regular dark and upsetting intrusive thoughts and runaway emotions.

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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