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14 Ways COVID-19 May Trigger Your Past Trauma

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced trauma, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

The coronavirus outbreak impacts almost every aspect of our lives, whether you get the virus, have a loved one who gets sick, lost your job or struggle with isolation due to physical distancing.

If your emotions are all over the place, that’s normal. But if you are already a trauma survivor, the COVID-19 pandemic may be amplifying triggers from past trauma. As a result, you may find some elements of coping are even more difficult. Your reactions in the present may reflect the very real emotional toll of the coronavirus on top of echoes from situations that felt similar in the past.

“The financial concerns, social isolation, and uncertainty about the future are difficult for pretty much everyone,” Los Angeles-based psychologist Liz Gustafson, Ph.D., told The Mighty. “I’ve also been finding that people are having past experiences of feeling helpless, feeling alone, feeling unprotected by authority figures triggered by the current circumstances. Traumas related to previous illness or losses are being stirred up.”

To learn more about how COVID-19 may trigger trauma survivors, we asked The Mighty’s mental health community to share their experiences. If you’re also finding past trauma memories stirred up right now, know you’re not alone.

Here’s what they told us:  

  1. “Not being able to leave and constantly being around people no matter how loving has triggered feelings from growing up in an abusive home. It makes me feel like I can’t escape like when I was young and I don’t have time to be alone so I’m having trouble with hypervigilance more so than usual.” — Juliann H.
  2. “My trauma makes me feel angry when people try to control me or when I feel powerless. Right now with all the restrictions, changing of rules and regulation and people who have no authority over me and strangers telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing, my routines that give me a sense of control are being destroyed. I feel powerless out of control and filling with rage that people, who have no right to, are trying to control me.” — Tami Z.
  3. “I don’t feel I have any control and feel very powerless, my trauma led me to isolate and ignore many people who cared about me to be self-destructive as a way to control my surroundings. It has triggered many habits to come back up which is incredibly terrifying.” — Abby C.
  4. “The ‘someone always has it worse’ mentality drilled into my head as a small child. None of my true issues were addressed properly because ‘these people have it worse your life is fine.’ So now I continually put myself last because my battles aren’t important, everyone else’s are.” — Kay M.
  5. “For me, it’s the thought that if I catch this, I could end up on a vent again and it just floods the memories from my serious car accident (which the anniversary of my accident is approaching…May 19, 2014). As a social worker and mental health clinician, I have had to tap into my tools/skills/knowledge and apply to self. Additionally, I rely on my faith to get me through.” — Christina L.
  6. “Where do I even start? I’m stuck back in fight-or-flight most of the time. Can’t sleep. Back to having nightmares again. Constant anxiety and hypervigilance. Depression. Poor coping mechanisms. Dissociating frequently. The works. This is a living hell for so many of us.” — Kelly C.
  7. “I feel like I’m going to be in trouble for not being able to work. I’m asthmatic and I drive for my job. I’m staying home for that reason but I feel like I’m being bad and will be punished for it.” — Isabella W.
  8. “Being on lockdown has just reminded me of the isolation, loneliness and restriction I felt when I was an inpatient.” — Caitlin T.
  9. “When I was younger if I left the house things would get worse and there would be consequences. Going out of the house to the grocery store during the stay at home order triggers all of that all over again. I don’t feel safe in my own skin and have showered and scrubbed so hard after coming home that I was almost bleeding. I hate this so much.” — Rebecca K.
  10. “Growing up, I was not allowed out anywhere. My mom was very strict and I was miserable at home raising my siblings. I make jokes about lockdown and say. ‘I’m used to this… I grew up like this!’ But in reality, I’m depressed, anxious and I feel trapped.” — Christella B.
  11. It’s brought me back to my first significant death and grief. That feeling that this can’t possibly real and wishing I could just wake up and having very little control over what’s happening. Mourning what should have been.” — Manette E.
  12. “Having nowhere to go and not being able to go places because of me being high risk reminds me of when I was too sick after my accident to do anything other than stay home and watch TV.” — Liz Ann T.
  13. “Thinking of those trapped in a house with an abusive partner. I’ve been thinking about if I’d been younger and being trapped in the house with my mother and this has bought back some of the feelings I’ve buried away over the years.” — Louise C.
  14. “Feeling trapped and stuck in my own head without being able to distract really feels like being an inpatient again — the same sense of non-time, loneliness, can’t escape and brain won’t shut up. Hate it!!” — Sirena A.

If you’re struggling with trauma and your mental health, reach out for support. Many therapists are offering online sessions, and you can always join The Mighty’s Coronavirus group to connect with others living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Know that whatever you’re feeling right now is valid, and you can always ground yourself in the present by checking in with all five of your senses.

“All emotions are OK and valid and there as protection,” Kristin Keliher, Ma.Ed., a professional school counselor, told The Mighty, adding:

If we can control our breathing and take a moment to notice the sounds around us, our brain will receive the message we are safe in this moment and begin to come out of survival mode and back into connection/thinking mode. The more we do this, the stronger this reaction will be and more grounded we can feel through this pandemic.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic triggered your past trauma?

Header image via Luis Galvez/Unsplash

Originally published: May 4, 2020
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