For the past year, we have experienced the slow burn of an unprecedented global event with enduring effects on our local communities. Many of us have lost family members, and we’ve all changed the way we live our daily lives.
As a result, many of us are experiencing trauma from the coronavirus pandemic. How can we recognize trauma in ourselves and our loved ones? What can we do to heal? As we move toward the future, how can we embrace the new normal?
To get some answers, we checked in with Christina Burnett, Director of Clinical Services at Harbor Oaks Hospital, a New Baltimore-based treatment center for those struggling with addiction, psychiatric and behavioral disorders. What Burnett shares may be welcome news.
What is trauma?
In short, trauma is a physiological and emotional response to a significant event in our lives.
“With regard to the pandemic, we have witnessed people hospitalized or even dying from COVID,” Burnett says. “Even if this hasn’t happened in our immediate family, there’s the exposure of the news reports. Each day, thousands of people have become sick and died, and the imagery of those on ventilators has been hard to escape. And, for some, the thought of no room in the hospitals is terrifying.”
The symptoms of trauma can be similar to those of anxiety and depression. “You may feel like you are in hyper-alert mode, or a state of constant arousal,” Burnett describes. “There may be nervousness in your stomach or a tightness in your chest. You may have racing thoughts that occur along with a worry that spirals or becomes persistent.”
How do I know a loved one is experiencing trauma?
When friends and loved ones talk about feeling fearful or panicky — or when they appear sad or withdrawn, these are signals they could be experiencing trauma. “Maybe they will say they haven’t been hungry or aren’t sleeping well at night,” Burnett says.
Children often lack the self-awareness to recognize the worry that accompanies trauma, and their symptoms can present as stomach aches, nightmares or sleeplessness, she says.
Avoidance is another clue that someone is experiencing trauma. “People might say they can’t even watch the news or they don’t want to talk about what’s going on. That’s avoidance, and it’s a hallmark symptom of PTSD,” Burnett says.
While it might seem smart to simply avoid what makes us feel bad, a reality check could actually be helpful, Burnett says. “If you are the type of person who builds things up in your head, it’s not always beneficial to avoid the reality of a situation because what you imagine is worse,” she says. “That reality check can be helpful. I’m a big fan of choosing the context in which you take in this information.”
Rebalancing is important for healing. If you need help to get to a comfortable place, seek the help of a therapist, suggests Burnett.
“There are many online forums and support networks to join, or if you are OK with telehealth services, you can work with a therapist this way, even if you can’t do in-person sessions,” she says.
Apps like Headspace and Calm offer the opportunity to practice mindfulness. Aromatherapy, even a daily pep talk, can help boost your mood. Or, spend 10 minutes with your children to plan your day. “It’s not the big stuff that will make a difference,” she says. “A lot of mental wellness will come down to the little stuff.”
Daily physical activity can also spur mental wellness and provide motivation to overcome and redirect anxious thoughts. “Moving your body is an excellent mood booster. It’s like magic,” Burnett says.
Being OK with a new normal
Many of us are mourning life before the pandemic’s disruption and building new routines can be helpful. “Reestablish what you recognize as normal. If you always went out for pizza as a family, have a weekly pizza party at home and make this part of your new normal,” Burnett says.
Self-awareness is key. Ask yourself what you miss most about your pre-COVID life. If you enjoyed being waited on at a restaurant, get your kids to dress up and serve dinner. If you liked being in a crowd, evaluate that. Is there a way you can satisfy that need?
“People tend to sell themselves short,” Burnett says. We can and do change, and that’s OK, she adds.
“Rituals and traditions are important for a reason. They connect us to others and reinforce those bonds. Don’t let go of those, but get creative in how you tweak it. You can enjoy some of the same things, just in a different way.”
Learn more about Harbor Oaks Hospital at harboroaks.com.