Coping With COVID-19 Trauma

Interview with Dr. Stephen Jay Lynn and Craig Polizzi on coping mechanisms.

Posted Jul 24, 2020

Craig Polizzi, used with permission
Source: Craig Polizzi, used with permission

For many people, the coronavirus pandemic has been the center not only of stress and fear but also of trauma. Coping with these traumas can be difficult, especially with a socially distanced and anxiety-prone pandemic atmosphere. In this interview, Dr. Steven Jay Lynn and Craig Polizzi recommend some helpful coping strategies and explain the research behind them.

Steven Jay Lynn, used with permission
Source: Steven Jay Lynn, used with permission

Craig Polizzi, MS, is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Binghamton University. He is the graduate research coordinator for the Laboratory of Consciousness, Cognition, and Psychopathology. He has collaborated on randomized controlled trials investigating integrative and complementary interventions for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His current research focuses on clarifying the relations among acceptance, mindfulness, emotion regulation, dissociation, and trauma and on elucidating how each function as regulatory coping strategies to promote resilience.

Steven Jay Lynn, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology (SUNY) at Binghamton University, current Director of the Clinical Psychology Program, and former Director of the Psychological Training Clinic. He is the Founding Editor of the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice (APA), and he currently serves on the editorial board of ten other journals, including the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Clinical Psychological Science. He has authored or edited 25 books and published over 375 articles and chapters. He is the recipient of the Chancellor’s Award from the State University of New York and numerous other awards bestowed. His research has been supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.

JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?

CP & SJL: The academic journal, Clinical Neuropsychiatry, was creating a special issue about coping and psychological treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. A colleague reached out to Steven Jay Lynn about writing an article for that issue because of our research on coping, resilience, and trauma-related conditions. The main inspiration was recent studies in our lab about coping techniques (e.g., acceptance, mindfulness, lovingkindness) that can potentially facilitate resilience to and recovery from stress. We also drew inspiration from our previous work with clients who have experienced traumas and how they have coped with traumatic events.

JA: What was the focus of your study?

CP & SJL: Previous research has documented an array of responses to mass crises or disasters, including chronic anxiety and posttraumatic stress, as well as resilience and recovery. Our article focused on briefly reviewing this literature so we could identify how people have coped in the past to create effective strategies for managing distress, uncertainty, and fear while cultivating resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

JA: What did you discover in your study?

CP & SJL: We presented multiple coping strategies (e.g., behavioral activation, acceptance-based coping, mindfulness practice, loving-kindness practices) geared to decrease stress and promote resilience and recovery. These strategies may be especially effective because they help individuals make meaning, build distress tolerance, increase social support, foster a view of our deep human interconnectedness, and take goal-directed value-driven actions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

CP & SJL: An important takeaway from our article is that many individuals exhibit recovery and resilience in response to mass traumas, which is an optimistic outcome. Also, COVID-19 is unique because where people once faced hardships in maintaining social distancing to “flatten the curve” in earlier stages of responding to the pandemic, they now face fear, anxiety, and self-blame about re-opening their homes, businesses, and lives. Thus, implementing coping strategies in a flexible manner to adapt to different contexts bodes well for promoting resilience and recovery.

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?

CP & SJL: Although similarities among mass traumas have been observed, each traumatic event will impact the population as well as each person differently. Since people are unique, the way they cope should be consistent with their personal needs and values. Therefore, we suggested a variety of techniques so people can experiment with and determine the strategies that work best for them to help cope with stress related to the pandemic. Some people, for example, will enjoy meditating, whereas others will get comfort from connecting with old friends through social media, and still others will enjoy journaling or painting about their experience.

JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?

CP & SJL: Establishing new bonds and reviving or reinvigorating existing bonds through direct human contact or via telephone, Skype, or social media not only alleviates anxiety, stress, and sadness but also sets the stage for prosocial behavior and empathy. During the pandemic, it can be comforting to appreciate that we are all in this together and to direct compassion and loving feelings toward ourselves and others. The practice of lovingkindness meditation involves doing just that. Lovingkindness mediation is a useful tool during the pandemic because it promotes social interactions and builds resilience by cultivating positive emotions and social connection, increasing motivation to access and provide social support, and potentially engender prosocial behaviors such as wearing a mask. Reminding oneself to experience compassion at different times during the day can relieve self-recrimination, salve feelings of inadequacy and guilt, enhance empathy for the plight of others, and negate feelings of isolation and aloneness in coping with adversity.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to talk about?

CP & SJL: We recently submitted two articles for publication, one is a systematic review of the relation between emotion regulation and resilience with implications for self-regulatory coping and treatment. The other investigates which emotion regulation strategies exhibit the strongest associations with quality of life in the general population and individuals exposed to trauma. We also plan to evaluate the coping strategies we proposed in our article to both determine if people use them effectively to reduce distress during the pandemic and to identify additional coping techniques to validate evidence-based recommendations for coping during future mass traumas.


Extended Bios:

Craig Polizzi has also recently published an article entitled “Brief meditation interventions: Mindfulness, implementation instructions, and lovingkindness,” which found brief meditative practices increase positive affect and compassion for others.

Steven Jay Lynn has also has authored or edited 25 books and published over 375 articles and chapters on psychopathology, hypnosis, dissociation, trauma, fantasy, psychotherapy, mindfulness, and scientific thinking.

Polizzi C, Lynn S, Perry A (2020). Stress and coping in the Time of COVID-19: pathways to resilience and recoveryClinical Neuropsychiatry, 17, 59–62.