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Shelter-In-Place Ignites Trauma From Past Abusive Partners

Recognize when COVID-19 conditions trigger past feelings of entrapment.

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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, May as “Mental Health Awareness Month" is a great reminder to pay attention—perhaps, more than ever—to our mental health. Along with the deadly threat to our physical health, the coronavirus has brought unimaginable changes and losses. In times of natural disasters, of which this pandemic is one, the psychological impacts of stress, anxiety, and trauma responses are inevitable.

Given the impact of COVID-19, recognizing the most common reactions can feel normalizing, and that helps us to cope. But when these normal reactions trigger past traumatic events, we can find ourselves in an even more uncomfortable psychological state. This can be true for individuals with histories of having lived with an abusive intimate partner.

Normalizing Our Responses

Is what we are experiencing and feeling normal for this time? To know what the common conditions are can help us to feel grounded and experience some sense of commonality with others that can offset feelings of insecurity and isolation.

It’s inevitable that we’ll feel anxious, insecure, and scared, given that the pandemic has caused a serious threat and danger to our lives. We are aware of the thousands of lives lost, which can exacerbate our fear.

We can feel sadness, anger, and grief from many losses, such as people we know, meaningful work and time with co-workers, income, school/college and socializing with peers, and enjoyable activities with family and friends that we cherish.

We can feel irritable, lonely, and isolated by social distancing.

We can experience depression with fluctuations in our mood where some days we might feel low and less attentive to things, and other days are more manageable, and we make progress.

Feeling helpless or powerless to make a difference in our lives can be a challenge and get exacerbated by not knowing a clear and concise path forward.

Although the mental health conditions can be uncomfortable, they are more or less unavoidable to various degrees as we go through the pandemic, requiring us to manage the best we can. However, when these symptoms or conditions become strong triggers to past traumatic events, we can find ourselves all the more challenged with coping.

Normal Conditions of the Pandemic Can Feel Familiar

Those who have had ex-partners who were abusive might experience the normal conditions of the pandemic as familiar feelings to when they were entrapped. While living with their abusive partner, feeling lonely, isolated, fearful, insecure, at risk, and powerless often are felt experiences. Now, if they have unresolved trauma from the past or post-traumatic stress disorder, they can feel they are right back to living in a similar state of danger, even when it’s not.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

It’s not surprising that old intrusive memories of abuse might rise now for those with a trauma history. When this occurs, the symptoms can include distressing memories, intrusive thoughts from the past, upsetting dreams or nightmares, and intense emotional distress or physical reactions (stomach aches, headaches, etc.) (DSM-V).

Recently, a client told me that she feels trapped and in danger again… like when she lived with her violent ex-husband, who has not been in her life for many years now. The depth of danger and fear engendered by the pandemic felt the same to her. Once we separated out the past abusive experience triggered by her current feelings, she could see that she is not in danger nor trapped in the way she was in the past with her ex-husband. Her current panic and fear have now subsided, helping her to cope with the present.

Separating the Past From the Present

There are a few questions to ask yourself if you’re experiencing a particularly intense emotional distress or physical reaction.

Does the current distress or reaction you’re having feel familiar? Do you feel powerless, fearful, threatened, etc.? If so, think back to a time when you felt this particular way. If it takes you to a traumatic experience or a scary time with an ex-partner, then you know that this past trauma is triggering and exacerbating your current feeling from the pandemic. It’s like getting hijacked by the past.

Look around and notice that you are not in that place anymore. Your abusive partner is gone, and there’s no evidence it’s happening now. Once you can separate the past from the present, your current situation becomes realistic and can feel more manageable.

The Silver Lining

The triggering past experience offers a window to notice the lingering trauma from that time is still held in your body. You might take this as an opportunity to enter therapy for recovery work to truly move forward unburdened by the past. Many therapists are offering virtual sessions during the pandemic.

Resources for Therapy

© Lambert


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. American Psychological Association.