The Coronavirus Pandemic Can Evoke Memories From Our Past

How childhood experiences can influence emotional responses to this crisis.

Posted Apr 06, 2020

By Kristen Beesley, Ph.D.

 OrnaW/Pixabay
Source: OrnaW/Pixabay

Everyone is having a tough time right now. However, it is important to know your specific responses to this global pandemic as well as the precautions you take can be informed by your past experiences.

As a psychologist and psychoanalyst shifting from seeing patients in the office to a digital space, I am noticing many clients responding to this crisis with an emotionally flattened sigh of, “So here we are,” or “This is it, I suppose.” It is as if they had been here before. I was struck by both their responses and my own.

News, conversations, and emails are now filled with information about the coronavirus using the same terms repeatedly: “unprecedented,” “uncharted waters,” “these uncertain times,” etc. I have recognized my own peculiar response. Each time for about half a second, I have the thought, “What do you mean we haven’t been here before? Surely, this isn’t new. This isn’t unprecedented.”

Have we been here before?

Unexamined feelings and fantasies related to childhood experiences can become attached to today’s trauma. In my own case, I realized my responses to the pandemic came from some of my own childhood experiences, although I have no personal history of a novel virus sweeping the world. However,  COVID-19 brought up, unconsciously, experiences I’ve already had. The isolation of quarantine resonated with earlier experiences of managing difficult times on my own, of feeling unable to rely on anyone for help. In me, this leads to feelings of resentment and sadness. However, once I recognized them, I could challenge this belief and respond differently.

Different trigger, familiar feeling

One patient told me about his living situation with three roommates. He was nervous about them hearing his session, worrying about a lack of privacy, and talking about how close they felt. This fear almost prevented him from agreeing to video sessions. As we explored the meaning of his concern, he remembered how close his childhood bedroom had been to the kitchen and how he never really felt he could escape his mother’s wrath, particularly during the evening hours when she was particularly angry.

Being “stuck” in a home with roommates made him afraid that if things got out of control, he wouldn’t be able to leave. To complicate matters, he felt distant from me physically but at the same time “too close” vis-à-vis video sessions.

Another patient talked about the anxiety she felt about having to be quiet and “tiptoe” around the house while her partner now worked long hours from home at his demanding job. She recognized her anxiety was unreasonably high, yet it haunted her. As we spoke, she was reminded how small and insignificant she felt as a child in comparison to the demands of her parents’ jobs and that she couldn’t tell them how sad and angry she felt.

In the past few weeks, she became depressed and anxious wondering if her partner cared about her or her needs during this current trauma. With exploration, we saw her current anxiety had its origins in a very lonely childhood. This realization brought relief and helped her talk with her partner about how she felt. She was no longer the helpless child who had to remain quiet.

Fears of contamination and illness

The virus can bring up other childhood fears, like contamination and medical illnesses. One woman, who, as an adolescent was sick with a mysterious, undiagnosed virus, noticed she was taking CDC hand washing and social distancing guidelines to an extreme. Even in her own home and under quarantine, she found herself not wanting to touch her children. She began compulsively cleaning her home and repetitively washing her hands. The helplessness she felt as a teenager about not knowing what was ailing her had resurfaced in response to this “invisible threat,” despite it having disappeared for many years.

Both old and new

This pandemic is both new and like nothing we’ve ever seen, but it also may feel familiar and already experienced. Our internal responses and reactions to the virus, quarantine, isolation, and economic uncertainty are very likely going to bring about feelings from challenging, difficult, and frightening times from our past. This is a normal response to today’s uncertain times. However, with good therapeutic help, we can find meaning in our reactions to decrease some of the emotional burden in the present.

Kristen Beesley, Ph.D., is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Metro Detroit. She sees patients in intensive psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, with a special interest in life transitions and female psychology.