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Where Do We Go From Here?: Healing from COVID-19 Trauma

By 
Kaitlyn Nuebel

The era of COVID-19 has been consistently described as an unprecedented time. This is certainly true—the last pandemic with severity comparable to that of COVID-19 occurred in 1918 with an outbreak of influenza. Now, more than a hundred years later, we face a similar circumstance but in vastly different ways, as technological advancements have allowed us to inhabit the same space virtually despite our inability to inhabit the same space physically. 

But perhaps what’s just as unprecedented as our current time is what will happen after it is over. On March 11th, President Biden announced that, with the increasing rate of COVID-19 vaccinations, there’s a good chance we can gather with our families to celebrate July 4th. 

The feasibility of social gatherings by Independence Day will of course be determined as it draws closer, but overall, people are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It seems like maybe, just maybe, our final days of social distancing, Zoom meetings, and wearing masks might be somewhere on the horizon. 

But with this notion comes a big question...

What happens next?

Do we just move along with our lives as if nothing just happened? How do we make sense of the previous year, which was an emotionally devastating rollercoaster for millions of Americans in more ways than one?

The truth of the matter is that even when the impact of COVID-19 on daily life subsides and we can finally go back to living our normal lives, or at least, lives that somewhat resemble normalcy, the emotional turmoil billions of people around the world are experiencing won’t just suddenly disappear. 

A woman wearing a mask sits outdoors on concrete steps while holding her head in her hands.
The COVID-19 pandemic won’t just disappear with time. For many of us, being able to move on means healing from the trauma we’ve experienced because of the pandemic.  Image courtesy of Forbes.

In America alone, over half a million people have died from COVID-19, schools have been shut down for months on end, and the fear of contracting the virus in addition to infecting vulnerable loved ones has loomed over all of our heads since the beginning of the pandemic. 

To top it all off, there is the drastic change of lifestyle that we all succumbed to after the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic last March. Everyday has been fraught with uncertainty, whether it be if the grocery store will be stocked with necessary essentials or whether someone will still have a job come Monday morning. 

To make matters even worse, these unimaginably difficult times have been fought without the comfort of our friends and loved ones by our sides. For so many of us, each day has brought another round of unbearable loneliness.

All of these things have compiled to form a collective trauma that we need to address as a society in order to move on from here and heal from the pandemic. Here’s what trauma from COVID-19 might look like and how you can recover from it.

Trauma manifested from COVID-19

People associate the causes of trauma with dangerous events that send the body into shock, like car accidents or violent encounters. As a result, many might not see the pandemic we are living through as a source of trauma.

However, you don’t need to experience violence or be exposed to repetitive harm to experience trauma. At its core, a key indicator of trauma is seeing the world as a dangerous place. In the current time we’re living in, when someone can unknowingly be exposed to COVID-19 and experience life threatening symptoms that they can pass on to someone else, it is hard to see the world as anything but a dangerous place. The staggering death toll of over 2.7 million people worldwide confirms this.

A woman wearing a mask looks out at the world through a window.
People affected by trauma experience a shift in how they view the outside world—they begin to see it as a dangerous place. Image courtesy of Axios.

The prevalence and significance of COVID-19 trauma is hard to determine, as we’re still very much living in a pandemic. There hasn’t been enough time to conduct data about how the pandemic is really affecting people in the present moment, not to mention the aftermath of the pandemic, which we haven’t even experienced yet.  

While trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic may be experienced collectively—for the most part, we are all affected by the same virus, albeit in varying ways—it manifests differently on an individual level. Trauma can also be thought of as a rupture in meaning making, and since everyone has their own ways of making meaning in the world, how they process trauma is particular to them.

Some people may be experiencing more trauma from the pandemic than others, who may not really be impacted by it at all. Or, people can experience the same trauma but handle it in different ways, impacting the toll it takes on their lives. 

Symptoms of trauma

Trauma can present itself in many ways. Here’s a list of some of the physical and emotional symptoms associated with it:

Physical:

  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Trembling, shaking
  • Rapid breathing
  • Racing thoughts
  • Changes in your sleeping patterns
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Loss or increase in appetite

Emotional:

  • Shock and disbelief
  • Fear
  • Sadness or grief
  • Helplessness
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Shame
  • Relief

How we can heal our collective trauma

Untreated trauma has can lead to decreased physical health as well as a higher risk of suicide, self-harm, and substance abuse. While many of us look forward to the day when we can just forget about COVID-19 and move on, the ability to do so relies on more than just vaccines and a reduction of cases. For some, it will require processing the emotional, social, and economic toll the pandemic has had on them. 

Here are some measures we can each take as individuals to help heal the trauma we’re collectively facing.

A man with his hands on his head sits on a couch in a therapist's office.
It’s completely normal to need some extra support in challenging times, and the era of COVID-19 is no exception. Seek help from a license therapist if you are having difficulty managing any trauma brought on by COVID-19.

Be aware of your mindset

While it may seem like a good idea to push past feelings that arise from COVID-19, this will only slow down your processing of the pandemic. It’s not necessary to relive the trauma you experienced by actively thinking about it, as this will overwhelm your nervous system, but do allow yourself to feel any emotions that may naturally arise, as this will make them pass more quickly.

Keep yourself occupied

Thoughts about the pandemic can easily override your brain, especially with the influx of information about it in the news. While it is important to be aware and informed about the pandemic, letting it take over your whole life is more emotionally harmful than it is helpful.

Keeping yourself occupied with various hobbies and activities you enjoy can not only serve as a way to destress from the pandemic and daily life in general, but can also keep your mind out of an unnecessary thought spiral. While COVID-19 has limited our ability to interact with other people, finding a way to safely engage in something you enjoy with a friend or family member can also help mitigate any loneliness you may be feeling as a result from the pandemic. 

Establish routine

The pandemic has highly distorted our sense of time and, as a result, our sense of normalcy. The familiarity of an old routine before the pandemic can help diminish symptoms of trauma as well as the sense of hopelessness many have experienced after living through a pandemic for a long period of time. 

Depending on your living and work situation, this may not be entirely possible. As for right now, things are different and we just have to learn how to make the most of it. Going out to dinner with your friends every Thursday night might not be possible in the same way it used to, but that’s ok. Do what you can—going for a socially distanced walk instead might be a more feasible and comfortable option.

If needed, seek out psychotherapy

Just because there are things you can do to help cope with COVID-19 trauma doesn’t mean the healing process is easy. Living through a pandemic is, to say the least, incredibly overwhelming. But, on the bright side of things, you’re not going through it alone, and there’s no reason to cope with it alone, either. When your feelings become difficult to manage on your own, seek out help from professionals, there’s no shame in doing so. In fact, in times like these, it’s hard to find a reason not to ask for help.

Many of us are exhausted from living through a pandemic and are looking forward to returning to our normal lives. A return to normalcy is certainly on the horizon, but for some of us, getting there means taking some time to process and heal from the trauma of the past year.

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