(The Dallas Examiner) – Panic, distress and a constant state of worry were a few of the unique set of complications of the coronavirus disease as it reached a pandemic level. The pandemic arrived in the United States three years ago with many unknown variables, including how to treat the overwhelming number of individuals becoming infected by the disease. Moreover, individuals were having to watch loved ones die – some slowly, some quickly – from a disease the medical community did not know how to treat at the time, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Between the lockdown, economic crisis, deaths and misinformation circulating at the peak of COVID-19, it may have felt like the world at large had been thrust into pandemonium – a shared chaotic experience. An experience, that for many saw a spike in anxiety or a trigger for trauma and crippling mental issues.
During National Mental Health Awareness month, MindSpring Mental Health Alliance hosted a What is COVID Trauma? webinar to examine how COVID-19 has affected the country’s mental health. The discussion addressed the unique aspects of trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including loss of control, disrupted routines, social isolation and a loss of loved ones, as well as a magnified view of global suffering and mass deaths.
“The pandemic created that bereavement on a huge scale. Death is traumatizing. So, during COVID, it’s been unpredictable, there’s rapid deteriorations seen in many COVID cases and that’s really difficult.” said Jaymi Dormaier, a licensed clinal social worker and therapist. She led the webinar presentation.
“We see relatives that are having mild symptoms, to being sick and having passed within hours or days. Or a loved one getting better and then suddenly taking that turn for the worse,” she said. “There were those restrictions in hospitals that still exist in some places. So, it made final conversations and closure difficult and there are the continual reminders of the virus and can trigger memories and re-traumatize, you know, interfering with the healing process because we’re so wrapped up in this current trauma, we may not be able to have the space to really grieve.”
Dormaier said the effects of COVID-19 were unprecedented. A lot of communities were thrust into uncertainty. The effects of COVID-19 spawned beyond increased health concerns to other facets of life including the economy and culture.
“There’s that loss of control during this mass trauma. You know, people are creatures of habit and routines offer a way to promote health and wellness through structure and organization. So having a routine can greatly improve your health. Uncertainty is one of the biggest elements that contributes to our experience of stress. So, loss of so many routines at once felt very unsafe and we just no longer knew what to expect,” she said.
In the U.S., the first coronavirus‐related activity restrictions were issued on March 12, 2020, when a community within New Rochelle, New York, was declared to be a “containment area.” Subsequently, as COVID-19 became more rampant the other states would all go into lockdown. For some, this meant they were isolated from some of their closest friends or relatives for an extended period.
“We want to remember that trauma is about that perceived loss of control and none of us knew what to expect. Our normal coping skills weren’t always working or they were gone. For a lot of people getting together with friends, going to the gym, going to restaurants, those kinds of things were their coping skills, and all the coping skills were taken away within moments,” Dormaier said.
“There’s the isolation piece to this mass trauma that is unique from other types of mass trauma. Something important to recognize is typically in times of mass trauma, the evidence is clear that communal gatherings and social networks are essential for that adequate recovery. With COVID though, meeting other people is precisely what spreads the virus. So, the treatment for mass trauma in every other case is the problem in this one.”
For minor communities in the U.S. the complication of COVID-19 further exacerbated the economic gaps and disparities that existed in the country. It also highlighted the racism and undertones that have existed.
“The pandemic brought to light many disparities that were already there but now became very, very hard to ignore. So being in an at-risk group due to things like race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, living in unsafe homes add to the pandemic stress,” Dormaier said.
“We have the U.S. Black Lives Matter protests in May of 2020 combined with growing knowledge of the stark racial inequalities around medical disparity led COVID to kind of intersect with long-standing historical traumas around race,” she said. “Evidence suggests that people of color and Black Americans especially face intergenerational traumas from racism and discrimination. And we have to point out Asian Americans being targeted with terrible slurs. So COVID was not experienced the same way by all groups. And that is an important piece when we’re considering how this mass trauma was unique.
Coping and self-care
Dormaier outlined various ways of coping with stress and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic. She encouraged communal gatherings and social networks while balancing public health measures. Practical steps like physical activity, expressing emotions and mindfulness to heal and cope are some of the ways individuals can process and deal with the ongoing trauma of the pandemic and grief. Seeking therapy and support was also emphasized for coping with the trauma and its ongoing effects.
The CDC recommended these self-care steps to help cope after any traumatic event:
- Take care of one’s body – Try to eat healthy well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. Avoid alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
- Connect with others – Share any concerns and feeling with a friend or family member.
- Take breaks – Make time to unwind and remember that strong feelings will fade. Try taking in deep breaths. Try enjoyable activities.
- Stay informed – Feeling like there is missing information may bring on additional stress or nervousness. Watch, listen to or read the news for updates from officials. Be aware that there may be rumors during a crisis, especially on social media. Always check sources and turn to reliable sources of information like your local government authorities.
- Avoid too much exposure to news – Take breaks from watching, reading or listening to news stories. It can be upsetting to hear about the crisis and see images repeatedly. Try to do enjoyable activities and return to normal life as much as possible and check for updates between breaks.
- Seek help when needed – If distress impacts activities daily life for several days or weeks, talk to a clergy member, counselor or doctor.
- 24-Hour Suicide and Crisis Help Line at 988.
- MindSpring at https://www.mindspringhealth.org.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 800-950-NAMI (6264) or text 62640.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 1-800-985-5990.
Robyn H. Jimenez/The Dallas Examiner contributed to this article.