Trauma and Covid-19

By Dr. Betsy Stone

What is trauma? How does it impact us, as we navigate the complexities of life and death under the threat of coronavirus? Can we be traumatized even if we are safe?

Trauma is defined in psychological literature as the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individuals ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes ones sense of self and ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences. By this definition, many of us are already traumatized – startling at sirens and afraid of the grocery store. We’re fighting with our loved ones and regressing into adolescent behavior patterns and drinking too much. Our sleep is disturbed and our moods are grim. And we live in fear of even more trauma and loss.

Now we don’t all respond the same way and we’re not there all of the time. We laugh and celebrate and love. We see opportunities for growth and connection. Trauma doesn’t have to be a steady state of dread. Joy can coexist with trauma, and we are entitled to feel both of these and other complex emotions.

Trauma can make us selfish and self-centered. We are in survival mode, which makes us buy all the yeast or toilet paper. We don’t see ourselves as part of a community. Rather, we think of ME and MINE, forgetting that we live in an interconnected world.

Anticipatory trauma can have as profound an impact as acute trauma. We become hyper aroused, hyper vigilant. We are on the lookout for danger. The other people I encounter on my walk are threats to my health and safety. Many of us are living in this state of hyper vigilance, especially in the hotspots and large cities.

So how do we keep ourselves grounded and sane in the face of the ongoing trauma of coronavirus? The answers are as varied as the people involved. Some need to face it head on, with a 24 hour news cycle. Others of us would rather distract ourselves in any way possible. Some of us need to help; others isolate. All of us are likely to regress.

Some of us are more reactive to trauma. People with PTSD are more likely to over-respond to loud noises. And an emerging field, epigenetics, teaches us that trauma impacts the human genome – so that the descendants of people who have been traumatized are more reactive than others. We Jews know about trauma. It may even be imprinted in our genome!

How do we care for ourselves and others undergoing communal trauma? There are 5 basic principles we need to address; safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment. Ensuring that the physical and emotional safety of an individual is addressed is the first important step to providing Trauma-Informed Care.

Safety is a basic need. Is your home safe? Is there violence, hunger, or psychological abuse? Are you able to meet your basic needs for food and shelter?

Choice is a complex human need. Am I able to make decisions that impact my life? Whether these questions address what I eat or how much time I get to myself, humans need to make choices. It ameliorates our sense of powerlessness.

Some of the choices we make impact others, and that’s where collaboration comes in. Social distancing is a form of collaborative behavior, recognizing that I live and act in a social milieu. I collaborate when I act WITH others. Collaborative decisions also matter. Do we negotiate, whether the question is who goes to the store, what’s for dinner, or what we can do to help? Is there meaningful support from peers and others?

Trustworthiness is a direct outgrowth of collaboration. Collaboration done well makes us trust and rely comfortably on each other. If I can trust you, my sense of trauma is shared and lessened.

Finally, empowerment can be difficult to find in an era of quarantine. Many of us spend at least part of the time feeling out of control and powerless. We need to begin to think about the places we do have power, to act from our sense of power and strength. We have the power to see goodness in others, to act from our most generous and caring selves. Meaning-making is a form of empowerment as well. What are you learning from this time? How will you retain these lessons? How might they change you and change your future?

In our work with individuals and with groups, we should focus on this framework, and work to address our shared sense of chaos. Remember, trauma overwhelms our ability to cope and sense of self. If these 5 steps – safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment – can ground you, use them.

Being grounded, in the present and in the future, is the ultimate cure for trauma.

What can you do? We know that naming bad feelings lessens their power. Talk about how you feel. Find meaning in rituals, either ones you create or ones of your faith communities. Spend time with people you love, and people who will listen to you, even over the phone. Don’t only use social media to connect – there’s too long a pause between what I say and any response. Reach out. For yourself and for others. Make meaning of this time.

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Betsy has led webinars for congregations, Rabbis, Hillels, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Education Project.