This Is What A Trauma Response Looks Like

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
Distorted portrait of female reflection
Jonathan Knowles/Getty

The consequences of the pandemic’s impact will vary from person to person and family to family; we can’t deny that some suffer disproportionately from this pandemic. First responders, vulnerable folks, housing and food insecure, immunocompromised, and marginalized folks will suffer losses that will make it harder to financially and emotionally recover. While some people will suffer greater losses and struggle more than others, we are all living through a traumatic event and experiencing distress on some level, whether psychological or physiological.

First of all, there is no right or wrong way to feel. I should be more productive. I should be less angry. I should work out more. “Shoulding” yourself is never good. It’s normal to feel anxious, tired, or even numb right now. Let yourself feel all of the things and be mindful that trauma will manifest in both emotional and physical ways.

COVID-19 related trauma can come from the loss of a loved one, seeing the devastating loss of life on a global scale, losing a job, and showing up for a job and putting yourself and family members at risk. It can also come from a loss of “normal,” isolation, and fear of the unknown. It’s normal — and common — to have a trauma response to what is happening in the world right now, and your reactions to the pandemic can be different from day to day. Here is what traumatic stress may look like.

Old Traumas Repeated

For me, the new trauma of the pandemic has triggered old ones. Many of us are reliving past experiences that have traumatized us. Old traumas are manifesting in flashbacks, vivid dreams, and the replaying of old memories. Some folks may also have panic attacks or nightmares. Psychology Today reminds us that what sometimes feels like a living nightmare can also cause actual nightmares: “The nervous system has taken a major shock, and even in our sleeping hours the brain continues to process the event.” This adds to the crappy sleeping patterns that can also accompany trauma.

I live with PTSD, and the new layers of unease, anxiety, fear, discomfort, and sadness have stirred up a lot of these feelings that are tied to old events. Every bad thing that has happened to me feels like it is repeating, and it’s right on the surface again. I have had to remind myself that while I may be feeling the same emotions, the happenings are different.

Raw Emotions

I am trying to embrace the fact that my emotions swing wildly from day to day, sometimes hour to hour. It’s normal to have outbursts of anger, anxiety-filled word tangents, or breakdowns of sadness and grief. We are scared and mourning. It’s also normal to disconnect altogether from what you are feeling; denial and numbness are common trauma responses. Some folks will cry multiple times a day and others may feel what I call “emotional constipation” — when I can’t feel anything or summon even one tear. For a long time I didn’t think I was capable of crying and thought I was broken. This was not the case, but I beat myself up thinking it was. Any and all reactions are valid; vulnerability can lead to a sense of helplessness and can trigger depression. Reach out and talk to a therapist, friend, or loved one about what you are feeling.

A False Shift In Perspective

When we experience a trauma, our brains start to tell us lies — sometimes to try to protect ourselves or to make sense of what we are feeling. If we can control our environment, then maybe we can create the proper narrative to understand senseless damage. These types of responses can include feeling guilty that more wasn’t done to prevent something bad from happening. Some feel a sense of survivor’s guilt or shame for getting well or not suffering more than others. Trauma can make some folks feel an overwhelming sense of distrust: everyone and everything about our world is dangerous and unsafe. We may also blame ourselves for the trauma or see ourselves as weak for not handling it better.

Physical Reactions

Sometimes it takes a headache, cold sore, or lack of appetite for me to realize how stressed I am. The same is true right now. We are not just staring into space or crying into pillows — we are also feeling the physical effects of pandemic trauma. Our minds are busy and racing with thoughts of what if, when, and how this will all end. We may be eating more or less than usual. We are more tired, sore, and achy. Our nervous system is stuck on high alert, and we are jumpy and on edge. Our hearts may race and our breathing may become labored. It’s common for our sex drive to change too. I feel a sense of heaviness when I am overwhelmed with stress. I feel trauma in my joints, and it’s not uncommon for me to experience a release of emotions when I exercise.

For some, the trauma we are experiencing will last for a long time; health care providers and other essential workers, patients, and people who lost loved ones are at risk for developing PTSD. However, the good news for many folks is that once life starts to resemble normal as we move out of crisis mode and into recovery, a lot of the negative sensations we are feeling can, and will, improve.

The way we respond to trauma will look differently from person to person and from day to day. If you’re having trouble processing what is happening right now, that’s fine. It’s important to lower expectations for ourselves. And it’s okay to challenge those negative feelings of hopelessness or fear with positive messages of reassurance or grounding reminders from friends and family members.

No matter what you are feeling right now, be kind to yourself.

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