When a Trauma Psychologist Experiences a Pandemic

How I applied my trauma studies to myself in the time of COVID.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

When I realized the coronavirus pandemic was about to shut down my city—forcing me into quarantine and putting a quick stop to seeing patients in my clinical practice and teaching my students at the university—I realized that I needed to start applying my past 20 years of trauma training to myself.

I have had experience applying my background in trauma to my own life before in the aftermath of a car crash, but this time would be different: my accident was an acute and finite episode, whereas I knew the coronavirus was going to be a chronic and ongoing event with no clear end. I live far from my family and friends, and I am very worried both about my loved ones and the world at large. I despair over the thousands of lives lost and the myriad ways people have been negatively impacted by the repercussions of this pandemic. While I often feel anxious and powerless, I decided to use the tools I have gathered over the years on myself as I navigated the pandemic.

In times of stress, food and sleep are often the first aspects of life to deregulate: Why not go to bed at 4 AM and have breakfast in the middle of the afternoon in bed? As tempting as that sounded, I committed to going to sleep and rising at the same time each day during my work week. Given that stress can lead to nightmares or poor sleep quality, I have also focused on keeping electronics out of my bedroom and taking time to unwind with breathing exercises before falling asleep, to improve my sleep quality. I also focused on eating three healthy meals a day and avoiding processed foods. And as tempting as alcohol might be to take the edge off in these stressful times, I limited myself to one glass of wine a couple of times a week. While substances might be helpful to smooth anxiety, over time they can have a detrimental effect on health.

In such an unprecedented time, I made sure to set a schedule each day to provide structure. I used Google calendar to make an hourly timetable for myself throughout the workweek, while I left my weekends unstructured and relaxed. I also made an office space in my home that was a separate work area. When I step into this defined space, I am “at work,” and at the end of the day, I leave this area and distance myself from the office. I also made sure to personalize my desk with items that I enjoy, to make the area a more enjoyable spot to spend my working hours. I also clean and organize my home each day, as it enhances my feelings of calm and order during this chaotic time. During my work week, I decided to still dress and wear makeup as I would if I were going to the office, and relegated pajamas for bedtime. I also made sure to go outside every day for fresh air and to exercise at home or outside for at least 30 minutes at least three times a week.

In the days and weeks since the start of the pandemic, I have experienced varying levels of tension. While I pride myself on being an informed citizen, I realized a trigger for my anxiety was reading the news each day, the news from around the world was so endlessly horrific. I decided to limit my media exposure in several ways. I decided to only check the news for 15 minutes a day, and I also signed up for several news summaries that provided condensed information and succinct headlines. I also try to read about good news as well, to enhance my feelings of hope in such dark times. I also continue to attend therapy, where I can process through the changing times in which we are living, and to navigate any feelings of stress I may be experiencing.

Self-care strategies are paramount to maintain sanity and health. This includes setting boundaries around what is important to me and stepping away from my work in the evenings and on weekends. As tempting as my iPhone and laptop can be, I take a break from screens to do activities such as listening to music or comedy standup routines, organize my home, cooking, or doing an art activity. Coloring books can be very helpful, as it pushes the user to focus only on the colors and lines in the book. Many find prayer and journaling to be helpful as a means of processing thoughts and feelings. These quiet days are also a welcome opportunity to return to books of interest or to devote more time to hobbies or new areas of study. Once I have taken a break from screens, I will reach for my computer once again to catch up with family and friends over Zoom or Facetime. Social support is imperative during times of stress, and video conferencing can add an extra layer of body language to connect with others virtually.

Much of life has been upended in recent days. Therefore, I aim to positively reframe my thoughts to focus on the positive as much as possible. I often feel afraid, sad, and angry at the devastation this pandemic has caused. It is important to feel my feelings, rather than to hide or deny my emotions. When my anxiety feels overwhelming, I use a mantra, a short statement that I can repeat to myself to focus on an idea or concept. Although I do not know when the quarantine will end, I continue to move towards future plans by planning and organizing projects and experiences that I anticipate enjoying in days to come.

While it remains challenging each day to not know what the future holds, I try to focus on what I can control in my life and navigate through this quarantine to the best of my abilities in this overwhelming time. I do not know when an inoculation will be discovered or when this pandemic will come to an end. In the meantime, I will continue to use these strategies and tools each day on myself and to reinforce their importance with my students and patients.