Dreams about unmasked crowds. Getting back to the routines of work, school or the everyday things we used to do. Shaking hands and hugging. Meeting without a computer screen separating the people in the conversation. Mourning the loss of lives.
Anxiety about re-entering society as the world continues to grapple with the pandemic is real. How, then, do we move forward from the collective trauma of COVID-19?
To understand the layers of trauma, we talked with Anne-Marie Abruscato, a visiting lecturer at the UNLV School of Social Work. Among the classes Abruscato teaches is the trauma-informed family-based practice, which was created as part of the trauma concentration for the master’s of social work program.
Abruscato provided insight on how to recognize trauma and how healing from any traumatic event is both possible and an ongoing journey.
What is the definition of trauma?
We can think of trauma as a shocking, frightening, or dangerous event that is out of someone's control and overwhelms their ability to cope. There are many types of trauma, such as sexual violence, physical assault, child abuse, combat exposure, mass violence, and natural disasters. Trauma can be experienced directly (such as being the victim of abuse or witnessing violence) or indirectly (such as learning that a trauma happened to a loved one, or being exposed to excessive detail about a trauma). The sudden or unexpected loss of a loved one can be considered traumatic. Trauma can be a single event, or many incidents over a period of time.
What are ways to recover after experiencing the trauma of the pandemic?
The most important thing is to re-establish relationships with others, as human connection is correlated with both mental and physical well-being. Also, reconnecting with other aspects of life that may have been lost or diminished during the pandemic. This could be anything that brings joy or contentment, such as spiritual practices, hobbies, or playing sports.
Why is it important for employers to understand trauma?
If employers understand the potential impact of trauma, they can take steps to support their employees. Supervisors can increase contact with the person while demonstrating concern and a desire to help. They can ask the employee what they need. If appropriate, they can consider making temporary adjustments to the person’s schedule, tasks, or work environment. They can offer to connect the individual with therapeutic resources. With support, and treatment (if necessary), people can return to their previous level of functioning and once again be productive and content employees.
How can we support each other?
We should all strive to understand trauma so we can support loved ones in need. People struggling with trauma sometimes have such distressing reactions that they are questioning their own mental stability. They may no longer trust themselves, or other people. They may have lost faith that they will ever feel safe again. You don’t have to have the answers — simply offering a nonjudgmental and supportive presence can be the greatest offering to a trauma survivor.
Sometimes a good reminder for supporting someone in distress is to talk less and listen more. Allow them to express what they are thinking and feeling. Let them know you are there to support them. If they are in significant discomfort, and/or if their work, school, or relationships are being affected, encourage them to seek professional help. It is important to offer hopefulness because research has shown that traumatic stress can be alleviated with intervention.
What are some strategies to heal from trauma?
Many survivors experience distress when faced with something that reminds them of a traumatic experience. This can include sights, sounds, or physical sensations which trigger an emotional or physical response (such as intense fear or racing heartbeat). Therefore, they may avoid people, places, and/or situations in order to minimize the chances of experiencing such discomfort.
Trauma can cause people to be in a heightened state of arousal (sleep disturbance, irritability, concentration problems, getting startled easily, being hypervigilant). Therefore, it is important to learn and practice skills to soothe the body and mind. In this regard, mindfulness practices can be quite beneficial. This includes breathing exercises, meditation, and trying to stay focused on the present.
How can we destigmatize trauma?
People who have experienced trauma sometimes feel guilt or shame, even when they are in no way responsible for what happened. They also can have frustration about the reactions they are having following the trauma. They might feel like they are not themselves or that they can no longer handle things. They may feel weak or out of control. They might be getting messages from others such as “Just get over it. It’s in the past.” These internal and external criticisms can hinder recovery.
Working to increase self-compassion can be beneficial. It can be so easy to be empathetic with others, but more challenging to turn that empathy inward. While it may not come easily, people can be encouraged to be as kind to themselves as they are to others. Also, to recognize that struggling with the aftermath of a trauma has nothing to do with being “weak.”
Acknowledging that what was experienced was actually traumatic can help to put things in perspective. Self-compassion can be enhanced by connecting with people and activities that foster a sense of validation and security.