Healing Trauma & PTSD from COVID-19

By Erica L. Wilcox, LPC T

rauma and Post-Traumatic Stress are not easy topics to talk about. They are backed by decades of stigmatiza- tion and misinformation. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussion, edu- cation, de-stigmatization of mental health and trauma are needed now, more than ever. This work is important to me because people do fully recover. It is not until we are able to put words and meaning to our experience that we begin the process of trauma recovery.

Trauma is the thief of safety and connection. Its sidekicks are doubt, fear, numbness, avoidance, and anger. They bust through the front door of your mental, physical, and spiritual home armed to strip you from the world you once believed was safe, predictable, and manageable. Trauma can be a ruthless thief, entering quickly and violently, taking whatever it desires. Or, it can be a robber that surveils; takes one thing at a time when you are not look- ing, and it is not until later that you finally notice that your most prized possessions; your relationships, sleep, emotional con- trol, energy, appetite, thoughts, concentra- tion, and joy have all been stolen. Where there is trauma, there is always loss.

COVID-19; like 9/11, mass-school shootings like Sandy Hook, and devastating natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, is a communal trauma. While the specific impact may be different for each person, we are experiencing it together. The effects are far-reaching on internal (the way we think, feel, and believe) and external (the way we relate and connect to others and our world) levels. It is embedded with significant grief and loss. One of the first questions I ask my clients related to COV- ID-19 was, “What have you lost so far and what are you afraid to lose?” Answers that I have received include feelings of safety, certainty, control, financial stability, health,

death of a loved one, freedom, and of course, social connectivity. The unique, but not impossible, challenge with COVID-19 trauma and recovery are that things that are compromised right now are the very things that are required for healing.

Definition of Trauma

Trauma is not synonymous with PTSD but PTSD is always a result of trauma. Many of the clients that I have worked with seek therapy because they are feeling depressed, anxious, or generally over- whelmed and are not aware that their pain is trauma-based. World renowned trauma expert, Dr. Judith Herman, states in her book, Trauma and Recovery, that “trau- matic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adapta- tions to life.” A widely accepted definition of trauma is that it is any event(s) that over- whelm a person’s ability to cope.

Definition of PTSD PTSD develops when someone has ex-

perienced a traumatic event(s) and through no fault of their own, the brain and body get hijacked. The event(s) have become so overwhelming that the nervous system is unable to process and the memories get stuck. The system is overloaded like the internet during a Black Friday 90% off sale on televisions, and parts of you will start to shoot up (anxiety, fear, irritability) and eventually, shut down (depression, feeling numb, dissociation, inability to concen- trate). The experiences remain in “trauma time” so that even when there is no life or death threat right in front of you, your nervous system and brain are telling you that there is. Polyvagal theory, developed by Stephen Porges, PhD., teaches us that PTSD is biologically based, experienced in the body, and is primarily healed through social connectivity and body awareness.

If people could just think their way out of trauma and PTSD, they would have acted upon it. Healing from trauma must include brain and body-based therapies and learn- ing how to safely reconnect with the self and others.

COVID-19 has set the stage for an upsurge in symptoms of PTSD for our com- munity and the world at large. I person- ally dislike the terminology of “disorder” when it comes to Post-Traumatic Stress as it pathologizes very expected and normal responses to abnormal and painful experi- ences. Instead, I would rename it Post- Traumatic Stress Re-Order as the brain and body are forced to reorganize the way that they operate.

Examples of PTSD symptoms include the following:

• Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event

• Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)

• Upsetting dreams or nightmares

• Emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event

• Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world (blame, shame, and guilt)

• Hopelessness about the future

• Avoiding people, places, or things that remind you of disturbing experiences

• Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event

• Difficulty concentrating (“brain fog”)

• Difficulty maintaining close relation- ships (problems with safety, trust, connection and communication) 29

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