Trauma and Isolation during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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We’re all a little stir-crazy these days. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and our government’s directives, we’re staying inside and limiting our travel. Practicing social distancing in an effort to keep ourselves self and others safe means drastically decreasing our interactions with others. 

Maybe we’re fortunate enough to work from home, but maybe we haven’t seen our family and friends in a while. Maybe we’re finally working our way through that Netflix series we’ve always wanted to watch, but maybe we’re also feeling incredibly lonely and isolated from others. While we’re understandably focusing on the sacrifices made by brave frontline healthcare workers, we often forget that this pandemic can have detrimental effects on another vulnerable population: those who have experienced trauma.

Isolation is Built Into a Trauma Diagnosis

The resources therapists and psychologists use to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) say that individuals who have experienced trauma can show a wide variety of symptoms. These symptoms can contribute to isolation. 

  • You’re having intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Sometimes when people are reminded of their trauma, they feel like they’re reliving it. This leads them to act as if it was occurring again, to freak out or panic. It can be really distressing and potentially embarrassing if it happens in front of others. If you feel like you lose control of yourself when you experience a flashback, you’ll probably find yourself not wanting to spend a lot of time around others.
  • You avoid people, places, or situations that remind you of your trauma. The isolation is pretty clear in this one. If people, places, or things remind you of your trauma, you’re going to avoid them because they’re painful and unpleasant. Sometimes it feels safer to stay home. This avoidance often extends right to your very foundation of self, as often those who have experienced trauma also become closed off to their internal emotional worlds- numbing themselves to any negative emotion, and the positive ones along with it. 
  • You feel depressed. You start thinking negatively about yourself and others, that you’re a bad person or that no one can be trusted, that the future no longer represents possibility, but hopelessness. You might start to think that the trauma is your fault. You don’t feel happy anymore and your hobbies don’t feel fun anymore. In some ways it makes sense, why would we want to hang out with friends and family if we feel like a burden to others? If we don’t feel connected to others, we won’t make social connections a priority.
  • You feel on edge, jumpy, and angry. Maybe you’ve never had a temper, but now even the littlest things set you off. You feel tense but you can’t relax. This physical burden is exhausting to bear. People might make you angry, so you figure it’s easier to avoid them than get into constant arguments.

When Self-Isolation Makes Things Worse

For people already prone to isolation, the COVID-19 pandemic makes connecting with others even more difficult. With instructions to limit nonessential travel and contact with others, we find ourselves feeling more alone than ever. 

Even if we wanted to spend time with friends or family, we can’t. We feel trapped physically and emotionally. Even simply keeping our physical distance from others, such as staying six feet apart, might take a toll on our mental health.

Much of trauma and its consequences involve a loss of control and feeling unsafe. Our potential fear of the outside world is confirmed; the world really is dangerous and unsafe. For many, the sudden instruction to stay at home and self-isolate felt like an abrupt loss of freedom and autonomy. When we already struggle with the psychological fallout of trauma, constantly worrying about the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones might be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back”. 

How to Help a Loved One Struggling with Isolation

It can be painful to watch someone you love go through trauma and the subsequent isolation. You want to help them, but you might not know how to do it. However, the most important thing you can do is be there for them, whether physically or virtually, but most importantly emotionally.

Be present and supportive. Make them feel safe by refraining from criticizing their emotions and reactions; they probably feel bad enough about it already. Instead, simply ask them how they’re doing and don’t be scared to acknowledge their pain and trauma. Having someone see and recognize our emotions is a powerful form of support.

Even though you’ve acknowledged their trauma, they might not want to talk about it. Let them know this is okay. Engage them in some simple activities, like taking walks, talking on the phone about day-to-day life, or watching a movie together. Simply being there for someone during life’s little moments can go a long way.

Trauma After the Pandemic

“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.” –Peter A. Levine, PhD

Unfortunately, the end of the pandemic and the newfound ability to interact with others won’t automatically cure symptoms of trauma. Organizations and researchers are already recognizing the possible mental health consequences that will persist long after the pandemic is over. Though we wish everything could go back to normal, we’ll still need support during the transition. 

Interpersonal connection and social support undoubtedly help those struggling with trauma and isolation. But we need more than this. Even more helpful is an approach that targets the whole person and targets many aspects of physical and mental health and career to help get their life to get back on track. Launch Centers is a unique educational, vocational treatment program designed to treat trauma, substance abuse, and co-occurring mental health disorders in young adults. 

Our trauma will remain with us during and after the pandemic, and that’s okay. It can take time to sift through its roots and effects. 

What matters is that social distancing does not have to equal social isolation. We can and must stay connected to others.

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