Loss of routine, financial instability, isolation… the coronavirus can be a trigger for some, especially those who’ve experienced past trauma. We spoke with Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP about how we can all cope with the coronavirus and the massive changes it has brought to our lives in a better, healthier way.  

How do you define trauma?

Trauma by nature does not have to be violent or extremely intense, as we may generalize it.

I often tell clients that trauma can be the most important person in your life telling you the most harmful statement imaginable.

Now, not everything is traumatic, but there definitely is an underestimation of how trauma can manifest itself. It encompasses so much more than we typically think it does, and it is unique to the individual.

If an event or a comment was traumatic for you, you have experienced trauma. It may not be for someone else, but that is immaterial.

How can the coronavirus be triggering?

Some major components of trauma are anxiety, fear of the unknown, and general angst of not having (or the perception of not having) control.

When you look at these factors that are  consistent with trauma, then you can correlate it to the coronavirus.

A trigger is usually an external (although they can be internal as well) event, interaction, or circumstance that reminds us of something that is unsettled or unresolved. The coronavirus fits the bill here.

When triggered by the coronavirus, we have an immediate reaction, but also latent content that is lingering in the subconscious is activated. In short, you are not only reacting to the immediate circumstances we are in with the coronavirus, but also to past trauma.

What aspects of the pandemic can be particularly triggering?

There are three main ways the pandemic can be triggering for those who’ve experienced trauma in the past:

  1. The unknown  Who is correct? When will it be over? Will it ever return to normal?The anxiety of having our routines disrupted is triggering, especially when there is no defined end in sight.Instead, we ruminate on all the possible futures that can come our way. In fact, there is so much future-tripping going on that we cannot remain present in the moment. 
  2. The fear (especially of the unknown)  What if I get it? What if my family gets it? Is it going to spread and kill us all? What if I’m a carrier? As stated above, for human beings, the unknown can absolutely excruciating. Fear is a by-product of ruminating on the unknown (and future-tripping, of course). To combat this, we need to return to a sense of direction and purpose in life. Without it, we flounder and we fear.   
  3. Feelings of safety and security have been jeopardized No one alive today has ever seen a global pandemic of these proportions. So, some people think, how can you possibly feel safe when everything is different? The reality of coronavirus is everywhere you go – masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, and copious cleaning. For some, this triggers more fear. Even in their homes, some are experiencing paranoia about home invasions and theft, thinking that society and governments may fail.

How can news be a trigger for people who experienced trauma?

The mainstream media is a method of gatekeeping. If we can be honest, they are not as unbiased as they should be. It doesn’t matter what your political affiliation, socioeconomic status, or race, you can find a station that force-feeds you a narrative that you personally identify with. Fine, no initial harm. But when you are triggered, news that fits a narrative only makes the feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, fear, and concern grow. They do not alleviate the symptoms, but rather feed them!

The same goes for feelings of grief. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance. If I didn’t identify those as the stages of grief, you might’ve described those as the last few months. Seriously, you’ve lost your sense of purpose, routine, freedom, security, and whatever else your experience may be, and you are grieving them. These may be intangible things, but, rest assured, they are very real to our mental and emotional health.

How do we identify potential triggers? What can we do once we realize we have been triggered?  

How do you know what you don’t know? You can try honest reflection and evaluation. Look for common emotional reactions and common thoughts you may have had in regard to external and internal stimuli. If you find that you are the common denominator in cases where you experience consequences, then you have to honestly reflect on you.

For example, if every time you talk with extended family they make you feel guilty, then take an objective look at the guilt. Is there any truth in their statements? Maybe there is. Maybe it is related to your isolating because of work, school, kids, commitments, etc. Maybe you are withdrawing from your extended family because they remind you of an ex that never provided closure. You are reacting to your family’s statements on a superficial level with feelings of guilt; while the truth of the matter is that you are upset with yourself.

Now, if you were able to follow me through that rabbit hole, I give you tons of credit. A therapist can help navigate you through the ins and outs of all the not-so-obvious things that are affecting your everyday life. We are not objective judges of ourselves, and the underlying reasons for our reactions are usually not so obvious to us. Find a therapist you trust and confide in them.