The Corona Crisis: Special Help for Victims of Trauma
Former victims of trauma and those with anxiety disorders need extra help.
Posted Oct 06, 2020
In my previous post, I offered some coping strategies for those suffering from anxiety due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This follow-up article focuses on those who are former victims of trauma such as child abuse, sexual assault, or other major trauma in childhood or adulthood, as well as those who struggle with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety disorder).
If you fit into one or both of these categories, you may be suffering from more anxiety than the typical person. If this is the case, it is important for you to know you are not alone. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. and that they affect 40 million adults age 18 and older annually.
In particular, the Corona pandemic has caused many former victims of trauma to become re-traumatized. This is true due to the fact that circumstances surrounding the pandemic, such as: feeling trapped at home, feeling powerless and out of control, being isolated from family and friends, and hearing stories of suffering every day on the media remind former victims of previous trauma.
Specifically, all of these phenomena can “trigger” former victims. (A trigger is a reminder from the past, which can cause a person to experience dissociation or other trauma-related reactions. A trigger can be a situation or a sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch that catapults a person back to the past.)
In addition to being triggered, there are other common post-traumatic reactions to the pandemic, including dissociation, isolation, and feeling powerless.
Dissociation is a natural response to trauma, one way the mind copes with too much stress. Experiences of dissociation can last for a relatively short time (hours or days) or for much longer (weeks or months). (Note: Dissociation is a survival mechanism that mercifully helps those who are being traumatized to “escape” unbearable pain and agony. Unfortunately, it can become an unconscious habit used whenever the person is feeling threatened or stressed).
Signs of dissociation include:
- Spacing out or losing touch with your environment
- Feeling detached from your body
- Feeling disconnected from your emotions, feeling emotionally numb
- Feeling as though the world around you is unreal
- An out-of-body sensation, as though you are watching yourself in a film or looking at yourself from the outside
- Feeling disconnected from parts of your body, feeling numb
- Feeling as if you are floating away, out of your body
- A distorted sense of time
I recommend you use the 54321 method whenever you find yourself triggered by a past memory or when you find yourself “leaving your body” or dissociating. Here's how you do it:
Identify five things you can see. Next, identify four things you can hear. Identify three things you can feel, followed by two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
This exercise will serve several purposes:
- It will bring your awareness back to your body, which in turn can stop you from being triggered or from dissociating.
- It will bring you back to the present, to the here and now, again a good thing if you have been triggered and have been catapulted back into the past by a memory or a trigger.
Many traumatized people were isolated from supportive others during their childhoods. They typically endured the aftermath of abuse or trauma alone. On the one hand, this likely generated a feeling of terrible loneliness, but on the other, isolation was also a signal that “it’s over now,” that is, the abuse or crisis had ended. Thus, some people automatically retreat to isolation to gain a sense of safety and relief. They may develop a habit of isolating when they are stressed in the present, often without realizing what they are doing or why. So being required to lock down at home can either be quite comfortable and familiar for former victims or can be re-traumatizing, creating enormous anxiety.
Even though being isolated may not feel as anxiety-provoking to you as it does other people it is not healthy for you to become too isolated. Even if you don’t necessarily feel like it, reach out to friends or family. Connecting with others is vital to our emotional well-being.
The pandemic can bring up intense feelings of powerlessness for former victims of trauma or for someone suffering from an anxiety disorder. For example, when a child is being physically or sexually abused he or she will feel completely powerless to change the situation. The person who is abusing them is bigger and stronger than they are and they have no chance of overpowering him or her. They simply have to endure the abuse. This feeling of powerlessness is much like the experience we are all having with the virus. Right now the virus is bigger and stronger than we are and there is very little we can do about it.
One of the most effective ways of coping with feelings of powerlessness and helplessness is to find some healthy, constructive ways to vent your anger. Consider any or all of the following depending on what seems most appealing to you:
- Write down your angry feelings. Don’t hold back, let all your feelings of anger and hurt come out on the page. Write a letter to your abuser that you do not send. Let him or her know how the abuse affected you.
- Walk around your house (assuming you are alone) and talk out loud to yourself, expressing all the angry feelings you are having. Don’t censor yourself; say exactly what is on your mind and in whatever language you chose.
- Put your head in a pillow and scream.
- If you feel like you need to release your anger physically, ask your body what it needs to do. You might get the sense that you need to hit, kick, push, break things, or tear things up. Honor that intuitive feeling by finding a way to release your anger in a safe, but satisfying way. For example, it is safe to kneel down next to your bed and hit the bed with your fists. If you are alone and no one is around you can let out sounds as you hit. You can lay on your bed and kick your legs or you can stomp on egg cartons or other packaging. You can tear up old telephone books or go to a deserted place and throw rocks or bottles.
- For those with a history of being abused: Imagine you are sitting across from one of your abusers and tell him or her exactly how you feel about what he or she did to you. Don’t hold back and don’t censor yourself. If you notice that you are afraid to confront your abuser, imagine that your abuser is tied to the chair. If you don’t want to see his or her eyes for fear of becoming intimidated, imagine that he or she is blindfolded. And if you are afraid of what he or she might say to you in response to your anger, imagine that he or she is gagged.
If you have difficulty giving yourself permission to get angry or have fears of losing control if you were to get angry, please refer to my book, Honor Your Anger.
General Coping Strategies
- Make the connection between your past traumas and the current Corona crisis. Think about what your current suffering is stirring up inside of you. For example, maybe you lived with constant fear and chaos when you were growing up due to one or both of your parents being alcoholics. Perhaps your parents punished you by locking you in your room or in a closet. Or maybe you had to go without adequate food for periods of time when you were a child. Not being able to afford the kind of food you would like to provide for your children now may have triggered your fears surrounding food scarcity in the past.
- Once you have made this important connection to ground yourself, bring yourself into the present, and remind yourself that your past trauma is not currently occurring.
- Now comfort yourself. Put your arms around yourself. Say to yourself (out loud or silently) the words that will most comfort you regarding how you are suffering. The words you most long to hear. If you experience difficulty, it might help if you imagine someone who has been kind and loving toward you saying the words. If words don’t come to mind, say things to yourself like: “I’m sorry you are feeling so helpless and hopeless. I know it reminds you of your childhood.”
Engel, Beverly (2004). Honor Your Anger: How Transforming Your Anger Style Can Change Your Life. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.