Managing Trauma in the Time of COVID-19

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The onset of coronavirus around the world has been sudden and overwhelming. In the United States, life as usual became life at its most unusual – lived from inside apartments and houses with minimal personal contact with the outside world.

This drastic disruption in the way we live forced us to quickly adapt to a “new normal” in nearly every facet of daily life: how we work, learn, socialize, exercise, relax, and pray. It’s understandable that with these changes came a grieving for the abrupt loss of our lifestyle, which we had crafted thoughtfully through years based on lived experiences and highly personalized preferences. Nearly all of it is gone.

Many members of our community, especially medical professionals on the front lines and essential workers who keep our society functioning, face daily uncertainty and real threats to their safety. Other community members have lost jobs and face economic instability of the first order. Where will the next meal come from? Will I have enough money for the next rent or mortgage payment? Others, especially those in our most disparate neighborhoods, live in conditions where it is impossible to self-isolate and there is no access to personal protective devices (PPEs) or cleaning supplies. How will these individuals protect themselves from COVID-19? These same communities also do not have the same access to healthcare and may have predisposed conditions that make them more vulnerable to the serious effects of the virus.

It should be no surprise that these instabilities extend to those in our community who are personally managing mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress. The impact of COVID-19 is a particularly challenging new stressor, one that threatens to exacerbate existing mental health symptoms. Isolation, lack of things to look forward to, and constant dire news reports can all have a big impact on someone’s mental health. Checking in on those who suffer from depression, anxiety and other illnesses to make sure that they have what they need and are coping during these challenging times is very important. 

While it is expected to feel a sense of shock at the swift changes our society is enduring, this initial feeling of disbelief coupled with the extreme changes in day-to-day living can lead to overwhelming feelings of worry, fear and depression. Further, the traumatic impact of the current health crisis including loss of life, surviving an infection of COVID-19, and fear surrounding safety may have reverberations for years to come.

A traumatic event can be defined as exposure to actual or threatened injury or death. COVID-19 is all of that. A collective traumatic event, such as war, a natural disaster, and in our current case, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, impacts not only individuals, but cuts across communities and threatens the basic structure of our society. Years of trauma research has revealed that prolonged trauma exposure can have extensive detrimental psychological and physical consequences including post-traumatic stress symptoms, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes.  It will be imperative to address traumatic stress and the medical conditions likely to follow in individuals, families, and communities as the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold, and throughout response and recovery efforts. This is especially true in areas where access to physical and mental health care is limited – those who live in the most vulnerable neighborhoods will need the most care. 

In the wake of this crisis, it will also be important to emphasize resilience and growth that often occurs out of adversity. Currently, organizations that focus on trauma and resilience, such as Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM), are pivoting efforts to respond to the crisis at hand so that the myriad needs of our most exposed community members are met.  For example, in the time of COVID-19, SWIM is assisting local trauma responsive community-based organizations by making connections to necessary resources and providing trauma and resilience information for dissemination.

During these unprecedented and uncertain times, self-care is essential to helping people cope.  Trauma disrupts our sense of safety and stability. Our self-care strategies as they relate to traumatic events, therefore, must center on re-establishing a sense of safety.  Many of these have been widely discussed in the context of our new normal, and they especially bear repeating when considering lessening the impact of trauma:

  • Maintaining a routine – regular wake-up and bedtimes, and periods set aside for work, study, exercise, relaxation and prayer – promotes a feeling stability. 
  • Coping strategies that calm the central nervous system – deep breathing, relaxation, grounding, mindfulness and prayer – are especially effective in stressful situations. 
  • Other self-care strategies such as distraction, exercise, laughter, and social connection are also effective at lifting the human spirit.  

It is essential for everyone to attend to his or her emotional well-being during this time.  Establishing a sense of safety, maintaining a routine, and attending to self-care, is very important for all of us in the coming weeks and months. These strategies, however, may not be enough to meet the emotional needs of many among us. When and where appropriate, it is important that people get professional mental health assistance, especially in traditionally underserved populations.

Access to established mental health providers in addition to connecting to new services is among the domains that has shifted in the time of COVID-19.  Telehealth options for mental health services exist and regulations regarding service provision are changing to meet the unique needs of communities practicing social distancing.  As been the case throughout the pandemic, an excellent information resource is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s Stress and Coping website provides a wealth of resources widely available, including national hotlines.

Meeting the medical challenges created by the coronavirus is requiring a constant and coordinated nationwide response. It is no different with the mental health challenges of coronavirus.  If you or a loved one needs emotional support, please know that you are not alone. Additional support needs to be provided to those who traditionally experience barriers to care. Seek out that help when necessary and help others do the same. 

Dr. Michael R. Lovell is president of Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit university in Milwaukee. Along with his wife, Amy Lovell, he is a co-founder of Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee.

Dr. Emily Mazzulla is a clinical assistant professor of psychology and director of SWIM Collaboration and Innovation at Marquette University. 

 SWIM is an organization formed to increase strategic partnerships among local service providers to address generational trauma in Milwaukee. Learn more at www.swimmke.org.

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