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We Need Safety to Recover From the Trauma of the COVID-19 Pandemic

We are collectively experiencing a traumatic event on a global scale because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Some of us, because of past trauma, feel the effects more than others. All of us are impacted, to some degree.

For some, this collective trauma may be a new experience. Some may notice that they feel more tired, less able to focus. Perhaps their dreams are more intense right now. Perhaps they wonder if they’re acting paranoid. Perhaps they’re feeling stressed or anxious over seemingly minor things. These are just a few of the symptoms that “full-time” trauma survivors live with on a daily basis. As one of them, I’m finding it curious that all of a sudden, so many people are experiencing my “normal.” Even with years of understanding triggers and making modifications, I can be caught off-guard. Chances are, many of these symptoms will disappear for the general population once the threat is gone. For those of us who have already experienced multiple traumas, the bone pile simply rises.

Even if someone believes their personal situation “isn’t that bad,” chances are, their lives are impacted by those around them who struggle with overwhelm, isolation and uncertainty. For many of us, not just the trauma survivors, the added stress means our window of tolerance is much smaller and everyday tasks are even more difficult to accomplish. The compound effects of this suffering will play out for years to come.

So, how will it get better, and when? Trauma recovery is a long road, and it often means processing and reclaiming our own thought patterns and behaviors. As someone who lives with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), there are a few things I’d like you to know about healing after a traumatic event.

1. Do what feels safe.

There’s a difference between being physically safe from harm and actually feeling safe. When it comes to trauma recovery, both steps are essential. Unless a person is 100% physically safe from harm, an eventual feeling of safety can’t happen. It’s not until someone feels safe that processing a traumatic event can happen. That means we are years away from fully processing what’s happening on both a personal and global scale.

In a domestic violence situation, a survivor must get completely away from their abuser before trauma processing can occur. There will be an undetermined amount of time where the survivor will be looking over their shoulder after the threat is gone. This is also an important step in recovery, and it matters how patient and kind we are to ourselves in the in-between stage of being safe and feeling safe. If we don’t graduate into feeling safe, we never get to fully process what happened. Instead, it will get shoved into the subconscious part of our brain where it will leak out sideways and cause a host of somatic and emotional problems.

So, in a pandemic where there’s no guarantee of physical safety, how do we feel safe? The answer lies in reframing and taking ownership of our own personal experience. Do what makes you feel safe today.

If you are feeling social pressure to react or respond to the pandemic in a way that compromises your own personal feelings of safety, here is your permission to stop doing that. It’s important to know that your path to recovery cannot depend on anyone else’s opinion of your choices. There will always be people out there who will fail to understand or empathize with you. Do what makes you feel safe, regardless. If taking extra precautions in a pandemic makes you feel safe, you are not paranoid or living in fear. You are living your life in a way that makes sense to you. Do what makes you feel safe.

2. Do what’s necessary to help others feel safe.

Say you’re feeling like things are under control in your area, but your spouse, friend, child or neighbor feels anxious or stressed about the state of affairs. You can help the people around you get to a place where they feel safe much quicker by validating their concerns and honoring what feels safe to them. Nurses know how to care for patients based on the patient’s perception of pain. If we are to heal collectively as a society, we must learn how to care for those near to us based on their perceptions of safety.

By the way, there’s no such thing as being too safe in a pandemic, and many will be too reckless with consequences that will impact the people around them. I suspect the recklessness of others will inherently cause as much trauma as the pandemic itself. Abuse is the disregard for someone else’s basic right to exist in physical and emotional safety.

Don’t let anyone’s opinion shame you into making choices that make you feel unsafe. Stay away from people who condescend and bully others for being “wrong.” Gaslighting and cognitive dissonance abounds right now, and if you’ve experienced emotional or psychological abuse in the past, these toxic behaviors are especially hard to ignore.

The most important thing you can do to avoid the effects of long-term trauma is to ask yourself, “Right now, do I feel safe?” If the answer is anything but yes, make whatever adjustments are needed until it’s a yes. When it’s time to make changes and modifications about the pandemic, ask yourself this question at every new step, and make necessary adjustments. The answer might lead to bigger decisions about the kind of people, workplaces and environments that are right for you. Be brave and choose safety.

What you need to feel safe might look different to what someone else needs. That’s OK. Focus on your needs and allow yourself to voice them. Trauma recovery is about feeling safe, seen, heard and loved. It’s about your right to exist without fear of violence or condemnation.

Next, ask yourself what you can do to help others feel safe. Two people can live side by side and experience the same stimulus, but their neurobiology responds to it in completely different ways. This is why it’s common in homes where child abuse is taking place that siblings have different accounts of the severity of trauma. The same is true of the collective trauma of a pandemic. Even if no one got sick or died in their immediate circles, some will emerge unscathed, some will be mildly inconvenienced, and some will spend the rest of their lives struggling with flashbacks of this time.

Right now, collectively, we are in survival mode. Depending on your go-to coping mechanisms, you are likely experiencing some form of fight (anger, arguments, frustration), flight (tuning out, avoidance, dissociation), freeze (not identifying needs or speaking up, feeling numb) or fawn (trying to “fix” others, distraction through good deeds, people-pleasing) as a way to manage your stress. Coping mechanisms can also alternate and be combined.

Managing the fallout of trauma will be the next great hurdle once we overcome or burn out from survival mode. Doing what you need to do to feel safe is paramount right now because if you get into the habit of denying your own sense of safety, trauma will inevitably be a part of your life for the long haul.

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Photo by Philipp Meiners on Unsplash