COVID-19 Revealed our Collective Trauma — Now What?
We don’t want to go back to the “old normal” — we want to heal and move forward into the new
I’m exhausted. With a global pandemic pervading much of 2020 and carrying over into 2021, our daily stressors have increased to long-term traumatic stress. It’s normal to be exhausted when faced with uncertainty and constant decision making: Get the vaccine or not? Send our kids back to in-person school or not? Go to or abstain from family gatherings? The list goes on.
Before COVID, life was a daily grind. We didn’t realize how much we needed (and need) each other. COVID proves humans are social creatures who thrive on connection, even if that’s through old-fashioned phone calls or new-fangled technology like video meetings.
Our human connection is further emphasized by the collective trauma and historical event we are navigating together.
For months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the trauma we are living through collectively due to COVID-19. Has COVID-19 landed us in a collective traumatic experience, PTSD included?
On January 21, 2021, a group of researchers published findings in PLOS One indicating that part of the population is experiencing PTSD related to COVID-19, “13.2% of our sample were likely PTSD-positive, despite types of COVID-19 “exposure” (e.g., lockdown) not fitting DSM-5 criteria.” This study finds that we may be experiencing a new kind of trauma — Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, in which we imagine future hardships.
It’s possible COVID-19 will have a long-term effect of changing the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) definition of trauma by adding some new one(s).
Here’s the crux of the PTSD I believe many more than 13.2% of us are experiencing:
Given the unknown timeline of COVID-19, it seems especially likely that PTSD-like symptoms could arise due to anticipating any number of negative future events (e.g., loved ones becoming sick) associated with the virus…Moreover, given COVID-19 is still unfolding, people may experience peri-traumatic reactions (responses at the time of a stressful event or immediately after). — PLOS One
Twelve months ago, in-person school for our children was put on pause and didn’t resume until almost a year later. We found ourselves disinfecting food containers and scrubbing groceries until we learned this is overkill. To be honest, my husband still disinfects grocery food packages, and I don’t complain.
I crave going to a crowded show venue, beer sloshing, bands singing with spittle flying, and people sneezing. I don’t want to clam up in terror when someone smokes or coughs near me. I’m tired of my rational fear of germs. I want to walk by the river without clinging to my cloth face mask like a security blanket, a ticket to staying alive. Even this introvert is tired of hiding out from life.
It’s been a year, and we’re all navigating collective trauma. It doesn’t have an official name yet, but there is research. Psychiatric Times authors Phebe Tucker MD and Christopher S Czapla MD found exposure to non-traumatic stress appears to have mental health consequences. While we aren’t being exposed to the DSM definition of trauma such as witnessing violence or experiencing sexual abuse, we are exposed to what are called “non-traumatic stressors,” such as joblessness, inadequate PPE, and unavailable vital health care services:
Some mental health care advocates believe the general population may be suffering from various levels of vicarious traumatization, although strictly speaking this would not qualify for PTSD’s Criterion A for trauma exposure. Along these lines, in August 2020 the CDC published results of a large US web-based survey of more than 5000 adults…in which 40.9% endorsed at least 1 adverse mental or behavioral health problem related to the pandemic.
Symptoms include anxiety, depression, substance use as a coping measure, and suicidal ideation. There is concern about inequity in healthcare and emphasis on finding and assisting underserved groups.
There isn’t an end to the residual effects of COVID in our lifetimes. COVID will never be completely over. It will inform our emotions and thinking for the rest of our lives. I believe trauma has lifelong implications for how we perceive reality and navigate life, which means everyone living through COVID, has a new experience of reality that is colored by trauma.
But, how do we care for ourselves at the most basic level when we are going through extended trauma? This isn’t about at-home-spa-days or eating that decadent piece of chocolate cake. Our flight, fight, or freeze has been cranked to high for twelve months — one year — and it’s still spinning as we choose to take vaccines or not, watch the news or not, figure out family gatherings or not.
The authors from Psychiatric Times suggest employing professionals to dispense “psychological first aid” to ease the collective traumatic burden. “For individuals enduring fallout from personal stressors, experts have recommended:
- Expanded use of telehealth to identify and treat mental health conditions, including depression, PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, substance use disorders, and suicidal ideation.
- Self-help groups, 12-step programs, spiritual and religious services, interest groups, and employee groups [who can utilize internet platforms for support]
- Societies to provide citizens with assistance for jobs, housing, food, medical care, education, internet connections, and many other basic survival needs.”
You know what’s ironic though? We needed all of this before COVID. I hope we come through with these services and retain them now.
Our brains are taxed with making multiple, potentially life or death decisions, day in and out for the past 365 days and counting. This isn’t over. I was relieved to obtain my first Moderna vaccine two weeks ago. Yet, we don’t know how effective it will be against fighting off COVID. We don’t know if vaccinated people are still carriers of COVID. There’s so much we don’t know.
I know I don’t want to go back into the world of mass-denial that things are okay as long as our personal lives are moving along at a reasonable and comfortable pace. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to see international governments prioritizing “psychological first aid,” which means basic needs are met for everyone. I want to see a world in which we interact with compassion and empathy — a world in which we embrace new alternatives because they are better.
It’s not all negative. The CDC website states, “Learning to cope with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and those around you become more resilient.” I remind myself our teen and tween children are experiencing resiliency before adulthood. They have a head start on dealing with stress. Here’s the list from the CDC of possible symptoms of stress you may be experiencing related to COVID:
- Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration
- Changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Worsening of mental health conditions
- Increased use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances
The CDC suggests dealing with stress by taking breaks from watching the news; taking care of your body with physical activity and healthy food; making time to unwind; connecting with others; and connecting with communities and/or faith-based organizations.
Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to see international governments prioritizing “psychological first aid,” which means basic needs are met for everyone. I want to see a world in which we interact with compassion and empathy — a world in which we embrace new alternatives because they are better.
Floridians are back to spring break partying, looking as though nothing much has changed. I’ve enjoyed a year without the pressure to socialize except from the safety of my laptop, where my attire is pajamas, my face is unwashed, and my hair is wild. However, at a year in, I’m finally missing some things — sitting down with my family at a restaurant, going to watch music with my husband, meeting my friend in her apartment instead of outside somewhere, seeing my mom without worrying about contagion.
I chatted with a Floridian friend last week. He takes daily strolls, wears his mask, and plays his guitar on the beach. He’s being careful and interacting with some of the people not being careful. On March 14, 2021, The New York Times ran an article by Patricia Mazzei about the Florida experiment:
“You can live like a human being,” [Governer] Mr. DeSantis said. “You aren’t locked down. People aren’t miserable.” President Biden’s new hope of getting Americans together to celebrate with their families on the Fourth of July? “We’ve been doing that for over a year in Florida.”
Mazzei says in response to the Governor’s lax attitude,
“To bask in that feeling — even if it is only that — is to ignore the heavy toll the coronavirus exacted in Florida, one that is not yet over.
More than 32,000 Floridians have died, an unthinkable cost that the state’s leaders rarely acknowledge. Miami-Dade County averaged more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases a day over the past two weeks, one of the nation’s most serious outbreaks. And Florida is thought to have the highest concentration of B.1.1.7, the more contagious virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom.”
While photos of spring breakers partying on the beach in Florida tempt me to believe we’re on the other side of COVID, I don’t believe it yet. Are Floridians reacting to trauma through denial?
I sleep a lot. I’m exhausted despite a hopeful future with vaccines available for everyone and the possibility of being together without social distancing precautions in America by the 4th of July, according to President Biden.
Others are exhausted, too. In the middle of this trauma, I intuit collective exhaustion and I predict collective exhaustion “after” COVID, too.
Our kids returned to school a few weeks ago. There’s a new spring in their step. They talk with friends and see other faces. It’s a sign of adaptation and resilience, these 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, walking around with masked mouths and noses, chatting, grateful to be back to life in one way or another.
But, there’s no going back to normal.
Normal sucked. It was fast and furious. It was a grind. There was pressure to be more and do better and go, go, go, go. There was pressure to consume and keep up.
Now that our collective generations are going through pandemic-times together, many of us have recognized just how out of whack our priorities were before COVID.
Many of us are finding our priorities are now connecting with friends and family, living a more mindful and grateful life, and considering our future impact on generations after us. COVID afforded us, as a collective, the opportunity to recalibrate. Many of us embraced this challenge.
Problems remain, but there’s no going back to normal. We don’t want to. It’s time to recognize our collective trauma, allow rest and healing, and trust in our newfound connections and recalibrations.
Instead of clinging to past ideals, it’s time to move on. Who’s coming with me?