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The COVID-19 Crisis May Trigger Emotions From Past Trauma

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistApril 07, 2020

As the COVID-19 crisis and social distancing wear on, we’re facing a collective trauma. Every day we hear news about the rapid spread of the virus, the latest death counts, and tragic stories of suffering and loss. If the virus hasn’t already affected us personally, we worry for our own safety and for our loved ones. These threats can feel unpredictable and uncontrollable—the signature of traumatic events.

You may be experiencing symptoms of stress and trauma right now as a result—things like disrupted sleep, feeling on edge all the time, and stronger emotional reactions than you’re used to. I was surprised in a recent interview to find myself struggling through tears to talk about my concerns for a family member on the front lines of treating COVID-19.

Many of us are finding comfort in knowing that we’re all in this together. And yet, we’re not experiencing these conditions in exactly the same way—each of us is responding based on our unique histories, strengths, and vulnerabilities.

Past traumas may have an especially powerful effect on our reactions to this pandemic. If you’re a survivor of medical trauma, for example, it may have echoes of a life-threatening illness or injury that you or a loved one faced. In fact, the fear and uncertainty we face from COVID-19 can be a trigger for any kind of previous trauma, such as accidents, assaults, or abuse—any horrifying event that you experienced as unpredictable and uncontrollable.

If you have a history of trauma and you’ve been surprised by the intensity of your reactions to the coronavirus pandemic, you may be experiencing a reactivation of your past trauma, as indicated by the following seven signs. Please note that many of these experiences are understandable reactions to current events, and they don’t necessarily suggest that a previous trauma is being triggered.

  • Intrusive Memories

Memories of your past trauma may come to you out of the blue when you’re least expecting it. You might be watching TV, for example, when a scene from your trauma suddenly pops into your head, along with a jolt of emotion. The memories might be quite vivid and intense, to the point of being a flashback in which it feels like the trauma is happening all over again. The memories can intrude at night, too, in the form of bad dreams or nightmares.

  • Problems with Sleep

Nighttime in general may be especially hard, with or without bad dreams. You might feel increasingly unsafe as darkness descends, and you may have trouble falling asleep, or wake up often throughout the night. Perhaps you dread going to bed because you know you’ll face insomnia, or will have nightmares if you do fall asleep. You might also experience a shift in your sleep schedule, staying up till the wee hours of the morning and then sleeping well into the day.

  • Being Constantly on Guard

The current sense of threat that pervades our society can trigger other times you’ve felt unsafe. Perhaps you find yourself glued to the news as you monitor the current level of threat, or you have a more general feeling of impending doom. You might feel like you’re keeping watch for danger all the time and constantly bracing yourself for the worst. Your nervous system’s alarm is constantly on, and you can’t relax. You even feel it in your body—tightness in your shoulders, knots in your stomach, clenching your jaw.

  • Difficult Emotions

Stress and trauma can also bring up the feelings you had after a previous trauma, like being more easily upset, crying more often, or feeling hopeless. Fear reactions are common, too, like a general sense of anxiety that’s hard to shake, or being easily startled by loud noises. Guilt and shame are also common, including feeling ashamed of having a hard time coping right now. You might also feel cut off from positive emotions, like it’s hard to feel joy even when something goes well.

  • Feeling Numb

You might even feel cut off from your emotions altogether—unable to feel the highs or the lows. Some people describe it as feeling “wooden” or “dead inside.” The numbness can extend to your relationships, as well, as you feel cut off from others and unable to receive the support you need at this time. It might be hard to muster any interest or enthusiasm in your normal activities, like finding it nearly impossible to exercise, get engaged with a book, or lose yourself in a movie.

  • Avoidance

Reactivated trauma can lead to avoiding things that trigger upsetting feelings, like trying to ignore the news about COVID-19 or working hard to push away memories of your trauma. These reactions are easy to understand as self-protective measures to avoid overwhelming emotions. At the same time, avoiding trauma triggers can prevent you from working through those painful experiences.

  • Negative Thoughts

The current crisis might be triggering trauma-related changes in the way you see things. You may have a more negative view of the world, seeing danger everywhere. You might see other people differently, too, like thinking that no one can be trusted or that everyone is just looking out for their selfish interests. Your self-perceptions may have changed, as well, as you see yourself as weak, inadequate, defective, or damaged.     

If you’re struggling with some of these reactions, start by knowing that you are not in any way weak or defective. This is an extremely difficult time, and these are all normal reactions to an overwhelming situation.

Also keep in mind that you’re probably dealing with the additional challenge of being cut off from many of the supports and ways of coping that are so important as we face current traumas and heal from past ones. For example, social distancing might make it harder to get comfort from the people close to you, and you probably don’t have access to your normal exercise or leisure activities.

Extend yourself some extra gentleness through this time. Treat yourself like someone you love, who is worth taking care of. Feed yourself as well as possible, tend to sleep as best you can, give yourself breaks from the news, and offer yourself ways of relaxing and letting go of tension. Run yourself a warm bath, or try an online yoga video like this one. Give your nervous system an opportunity to settle into a lower gear.

More than anything else, make room for your experience to be what it is, without judging or criticizing yourself. You’re human, and you’re having a human reaction. And remember that you’re not a victim of this trauma or any other. The fact that you’ve lived through past traumas means they didn’t have the last word—you’re still here, still alive, still staring down challenges, still doing the best you can. You will come through this time, because you are a survivor.

If you’re interested in treatment for trauma-related difficulties, ask for a referral from your primary care doctor or search an online directory like this one for a therapist near you (or who provides online therapy ).

If you'd like some easy daily practices to help manage anxiety, my e-guide “10 Ways to Manage Stress and Anxiety Every Day” is available for free when you  sign up for my newsletter .   

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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