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Trauma

Is COVID-19 Killing Kindness?

Fear, trauma, and isolation may elicit aggressiveness.

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COVID 19
Source: J.J. Gouin/Istock

The COVID-19 global pandemic has decreased our social interactions and restricted our accustomed freedoms. People are losing loved ones, jobs, savings, businesses, homes, and all sense of normalcy and stability. But is our society also losing compassion and kindness?

History and psychology show that societal instability and chaos can increase intolerance (Rokeach 1960), anxiety, and aggression (Jacobs 2001), which can lead to authoritarianism (Sales 1973), escalating crime and violence, and even genocide (Staub 1989). In this light, the current decline of civility and kindness, and the increase in aggression, violence, and crime, are extremely concerning. Even people with normally sunny dispositions and caring natures now struggle with misplaced anger and feelings of hate toward others.

For example, my friend Simone’s mother began posting angry Facebook comments that were hurtful to her family, friends, and acquaintances. When Simone told her mother how her posts were affecting others, her mother agreed to stop. But she started up again soon after. “She’s always been kind and considerate,” Simone told me. “But I don’t recognize her anymore.” The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be affecting our personalities, our psyches, our ethics, and our culture in ways we need to better understand.

Healthy anger is a “normal and important” emotion. It alerts us to problems and dangers and generates the extra physical and emotional energy we need to act and respond effectively (Babbel, 2018). But the recent increase in hostility, aggression, and violence occurring in many U.S. cities and towns does not reflect healthy anger. It seems more like a sign of trauma and a dysregulated nervous system.

Fear and Anger: Physiological Responses to Pandemic Stress and Trauma

The COVID-19 pandemic, and its restrictions and effects, make it increasingly difficult to fulfill the basic needs listed in the first four tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Essential Needs (McLeod 2020). And this can throw us into fear and trauma mode. To better understand this, let’s briefly review these first four tier needs, which are:

  • Tier 1: Needs for food, water, warmth, rest, and health.
  • Tier 2: Needs for security, shelter, and safety.
  • Tier 3: Needs for belongingness, love, intimate relationships, and friends.
  • Tier 4: Needs for esteem, prestige, and feelings of accomplishment.

When our essential needs are not met, life begins to feel overwhelming and unmanageable. At a certain point, this deprivation becomes traumatic. And when the essential needs of masses of people are not met, it is a profound collective trauma. Yet we can still survive, heal, and recover. We can find healthy ways to cope and practice self-care. We can practice empathy, kindness, and trust amidst uncertainty, chaos, and fear. And we can reestablish a foundation of healthy connections and intimacy in our lives.

First, we need to understand that fear, stress, and trauma release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into the nervous system. This automatically triggers our non-volitional, self-protective flight-flight-freeze responses, which can take positive-and- effective, or negative-and-counterproductive forms. It also helps to know that specific emotions accompany each of these three physiological responses. Typically, we feel anger/aggression in fight mode; fear/terror in flight mode; and confusion/helplessness in freeze mode.

For countless thousands of years, fight mode was an instinctive and appropriate response to threat and danger. But in today’s “civilized” world, many threats and dangers are complex or subtle, and hard to recognize. And physical fighting isn’t always an effective or appropriate response.

In fight mode, we confront threats and dangers with full force. This may involve warning, shouting, threatening, defending, and even acts of extreme aggression or violence. And when we’re out of danger, we gradually return to our normal state. But in fight/trauma mode, we may not know what we’re feeling, or why, and we may misdirect our anger and aggression, or express them inappropriately. Venting aggression can provide temporary feelings of victory, safety, or relief. But it rarely resolves problems, threats, and dangers, and often makes things worse.

In flight mode, we run or flee from threat and danger. And when we’re out of danger, we gradually return to our normal” state. But in flight/trauma mode, we might withdraw or isolate ourselves from family, friends, and people in general. We might overreact by moving or running away, quitting a job, or ending a relationship. We might hide at home for weeks, months, or even years. We might self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or food, perhaps to the point of addiction.

In freeze mode, overwhelming threat or danger triggers physical paralysis or collapse, and emotional and cognitive dissociation. This buffers us from pain and terror. Classic examples include a person surviving a grizzly bear attack by fainting, or a gazelle going limp in a lion’s jaws. In freeze/trauma mode, we shut down, dissociate emotionally, and go numb, which compromises our ability to think rationally, accurately assess people and situations, and make responsible judgments and decisions. We may experience a debilitating loss of energy and motivation and have trouble performing necessary tasks and fulfilling important obligations. Think of someone suffering from clinical depression.

Fight, flight, and freeze responses to threat and danger are instinctual and involuntary. But we are not just instinctual creatures. We are also social creatures who need each other to live. This is especially true in times of extreme chaos and upheaval.

COVID-19, with its pervasive fears of infecting or being infected by others, has ruptured the fabric of social relations we rely on to maintain health and balance. It has turned everyone — ourselves and the very people we like, love, care for, and depend upon — into potential threats or casualties. Lockdowns, social distancing, and wearing facemasks may help “prevent the spread." But prolonged physical/emotional separation from others, and the inability to see facial expressions and read social/interpersonal cues, can be traumatic. It destabilizes the nervous system and contributes to feelings of agitation, anxiety, and depression.

Stephen Porges, professor of psychiatry (2011), points out that human beings need to see facial expressions, hear voice tones and inflections, and have positive physical interactions with others to stay calm and resilient. He calls this co-regulation. At a certain point, depending on the individual, insufficient co-regulation becomes trauma, and trauma impacts the psyche and compromises the immune system. This can lead to serious health problems like high blood pressure, adrenal fatigue, heart conditions, and autoimmune disorders (Boscarino 2004).

We can’t control the world around us, but we can learn to manage our nervous system under stress. And we can observe our feelings and behaviors, and do our best to align them with positive values like kindness, fairness, empathy, and respect for others.

What can you do to tame your nervous system and control your anger?

When we can recognize and understand our body's fight-or-flight responses, and differentiate between our healthy and unhealthy responses, we can begin to develop healthy self-control under stress.

For example: When my client Robert noticed in a recent phone call to Comcast that he was becoming frustrated and unreasonable, he began to physically relax, take deeper breaths, and slow down his speech. Reflecting after the phone call, he recognized the real source of his unreasonable frustration. He was missing his family and a sense of connection with others.

Here are some things you can do to counteract or diminish your stress response:

  • Notice and be aware of your judgment and anger.
  • Pause and acknowledge where it might be coming from. Do you feel lonely, sad, anxious, or helpless? Do you fear death, life, boredom, the future, the unknown, or anything else?
  • If you don’t know why you feel the way you do, try journaling about your feelings and circumstances to discover what is really bothering you.
  • Work on your nervous system with relaxation exercises such as breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga.
  • Many excellent self-help books on trauma have exercises that teach you to self-regulate your nervous system (Babbel 2018, Levine 1997).
  • Work with a therapist who knows how to help you regulate your nervous system such as a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner.
  • To stay connected in a time of social distancing, engage with others via video chat instead of texting or e-mailing.
  • Practicing kindness, and acts of altruism release oxytocin and counteract the negative effects of stress hormones like cortisol.

Summary

Anger is an important emotion. Used appropriately, it can motivate us to act and effect positive change. Used inappropriately, it can create division, and cause pain or harm to others.

Only kindness, empathy, and connection can heal enmity, division, and disconnection. And in times like these, it’s vitally important to be conscious and aware of how we view, listen, and speak to others. So go within and observe yourself, your thoughts, and your interactions with others. Look for, and find out why you are really agitated, afraid, or angry. Learn to regulate your nervous system under stress, so you can treat yourself, and others, with kindness and compassion.

Remember that no matter how you feel, you’re not alone. We’re all in this together. And if we do the best we can, we’ll get through this together.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Babbel, S. 2018. Heal the Body. Heal the Mind. A Somatic Approach to Moving Beyond Trauma. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Boscarino, J. A. 2004. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Physical Illness: Results from Clinical and Epidemiologic Studies. Annuals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1032: 141-153.

Jacobs G. D. (2001). The physiology of mind-body interactions: the stress response and the relaxation response. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 7 Suppl 1, S83–S92. https://doi.org/10.1089/107555301753393841

Levine, P. 1997. Waking the Tiger: the Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

McLeod, S. A. (2020, March 20). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Porges, S. 2011. The Polyvagal Theory. Neurophysiological Foundation of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rokeach, M. (1960). The open and closed mind. New York: Basic Books. In Feldman, S., & Stenner, K. (1997). Perceived Threat and Authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 18(4), 741-770. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3792208

Staub, E. (1989). The roots of evil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. In Feldman, S., & Stenner, K. (1997). Perceived Threat and Authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 18(4), 741-770. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3792208

Sales, S. M. (1973). Threat as a factor in authoritarianism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 44–57. In Feldman, S., &

Stenner, K. (1997). Perceived Threat and Authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 18(4), 741-770. Retrieved August 29, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3792208

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