How Is America's "Coping" Muscle?

Factors related to coping with COVID-19

Posted Mar 25, 2020

Yesterday, Military Times published an Op Ed I wrote entitled, "Now, civilians are experiencing the same kind of crisis stress that is well known to military veterans."

Here is a short excerpt (you can access the full article through the link above): 

How is the veteran community reacting to the new coronavirus threat?

It’s a question that cuts to the heart of the long-term impact of exposure to life stressors and trauma. Working as a psychologist with a caseload of several hundred veterans, I have noticed that the relationship between past trauma and future challenges is not a simple one. Even among those with deep scars from childhood trauma, there can be an “inoculation” effect at play. In other words, when future challenges arise, their attitude is “I’ve dealt with worse, and I know that I can adapt to anything.” Such individuals are not ambushed by waves of anxiety — they generally drop into action mode and use our sessions to come up with strategic ways to overcome the challenges in their lives.

Past trauma can also work in the opposite way, too. For some of my patients, past trauma made them more vulnerable to feeling out of control with further trauma exposure. This reaction is absolutely understandable as well. Trauma can lock us into a state of what I call “chronic threat response.” In this state, we are painfully sensitive to further stressors and additional trauma exposures. When new stressors arise, they further add to our sympathetic load. On the psychological side, we fuse new challenges with unresolved past experiences and may feel overwhelmed by helpless frustration. Some of the veterans in my network are responding to COVID-19 in this way. For example, the current shortage of paper supplies is triggering them to recall what can happen when a nation of people go into survival mode.

In response, a reader posed this really interesting question:

    How are people in other less fortunate countries who face stressors everyday coping with this?  The Iraqi people have suffered these stressors on a decades-old continuous basis. What of the Syrian people, Myanmar, etc.?

I thought I'd post my reply and see if we might start a conversation here. These are my initial thoughts: 

This is a super interesting question. I’m sure that people could write several books on this topic alone. In countries where there are uncontrolled outbreaks and no resources, it’s hard to imagine the level of loss grief, skyrocketing anxiety, etc.

I wonder, though...If there was a country with a different kind of society that consistently followed safety precautions and had no uncontrolled outbreaks as a result, might that nation do psychologically better then we will do? 

Think about countries where people are already sorted into interdependent, extended family systems or tribes. If they appointed a “runner” to go get essential items and kept everybody else safe and protected, they would not suffer from the same isolation that we will here. In a close circle that has not had exposure to contagion vectors, social distancing would not be needed within that group of people.

Also some other countries with far less wealth have developed ways of coping and habituated to some of the anxiety that people here are experiencing maybe for the first time in their lives. It’s safe to say that many Americans have never had a real experience with deprivation, for example. I think this accounts for the panic and the hoarding behavior we are seeing at present.

What are your thoughts?  Let's discuss; I'm always happy to learn from others.