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Coping with Post-Pandemic Trauma

Strategies for recognizing and managing signs of trauma and grief.

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Upsplash
Source: Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Upsplash

We have all suffered at varying levels from the global coronavirus pandemic. Everyone’s daily lives were disrupted. Some people lost jobs; most were isolated from loved ones. People lost family members, friends, and colleagues to the disease. Collectively, we all dealt with an atmosphere of fear and sometimes anger.

Healthcare workers found themselves facing a deadly disease with few tools for treatment and overwhelming numbers of sick and dying patients. At times, our healthcare system was completely overwhelmed, making it difficult to treat all patients effectively.

Essential workers such as ambulance crews, law enforcement, fire departments, and grocery store staff were often overwhelmed and working too many hours under scary circumstances. They dealt with angry customers who were dealing with trauma themselves. Businesses, professional services, and universities had to rapidly change their whole mode of operating to accommodate remote work and video conferencing. Many people were sick and hospitalized, and some are still suffering long haul effects of the virus.

This was a trauma that went on for more than 14 months and continues in some parts of the world. We are all collectively tired, burnt out, and experiencing some level of a trauma reaction. It is tempting to shrug our shoulders and say, “Thank goodness that is over; let’s get back to normal.” That is unlikely to work for most of us. A trauma lasting 14 months changes your whole-body chemistry. We are more prone to worry and anxiety and more likely to experience grief, self-doubt, and depression. It is as if the rug was pulled out from under all of us, interfering with our sense of safety and predictability. Many of us will find we are running on fumes just trying to get through the day.

Our task moving forward is to deal with the grief and trauma. Ignoring it tends to prolong it. It is important to acknowledge the symptoms of trauma and grief, and even more so to seek help.

Symptoms of psychological trauma include:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Feeling disconnected or numb

Symptoms of grief include:

  • Sadness
  • Preoccupation with loss
  • Numbness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Inability to show or experience joy
  • Detachment
  • Increased irritability

It’s also necessary to be aware of the physical symptoms you may be experiencing. These include:

  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Being startled easily
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Racing heart
  • Aches and pains
  • Muscle tension
  • Compromised immune system

Here are some strategies for coping with trauma reactions post-COVID:

  • Recognize that the trauma and grief you are feeling are normal. This is a healthy response to an extended trauma.
  • Talk about it. We tend to bury our feelings after a traumatic experience instead of allowing ourselves to express our feelings and thoughts. It is tempting to engage in avoidance of painful thoughts and feelings; however, avoidance tends to perpetuate and intensify post-traumatic symptoms. The more you avoid, the worse you may feel. Research has taught us that talking about trauma helps lessen its power over us. Find people who you trust and talk through all the ways you are finding yourself affected by the trauma.
  • Get moving. Trauma freezes you in a state of hyperarousal. Exercise can burn off adrenaline, release endorphins, and can help repair your nervous system. Rhythmic movements such as walking, running, bike riding, swimming, or playing sports such as pickleball or basketball are most useful.
  • Don’t isolate. You may be tempted to continue isolating after the pandemic. We’ve all adjusted to time alone, but isolation makes trauma worse. Get out and spend time with people.
  • Self-regulate your nervous system. It is important to remember that no matter how agitated you are, you can change your arousal level by changing your thinking habits. Here are some tips for doing so:
  1. Mindful breathing. Spend five minutes using deep breathing. four counts in, hold four counts, four counts out.
  2. Sensory input. Use a sight, smell, texture, or taste that is calming. Light a scented candle and focus your full attention on this, pet your dog or cat, watch the sunset. Whatever distracts your mind and allows you to fully focus on something here and now.
  3. Stay grounded. Sit in a chair, feel the floor beneath your feet, feel your back against the chair, notice the sounds, smells, and sensations around you.
  4. Acknowledge your feelings and accept them as they occur. Allow them to flow in and out like clouds drifting by. Instead of saying to yourself, “I am angry,” say “I am experiencing anger,” or “I am feeling anger.” The wording helps separate your feelings from your whole identity.
  • Take care of your health. Get plenty of sleep, eat a nutritious diet, and minimize the use of alcohol and drugs.
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