Collective Trauma: The Triggering Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Trauma is a loaded word, and we can talk about it in several different contexts, but for the next few minutes, let’s talk about trauma as it relates to what’s going on right now with the COVID-19 pandemic and how this experience could complicate addiction and recovery.

One way of looking at trauma is this: trauma is a reaction to a big shift in identity or what we believe our identity should be or should have been.  From this perspective, trauma is highly subjective.  Nobody can tell you that an event was not traumatic for you.  It is based more on subjective emotional/physical/cognitive/spiritual experience than it is on a definition of the event.

Here are just a few examples of identity shifts that can be experienced as traumatic:

  • A healthy 20-year-old goes to combat, their vehicle is bombed, and they lose a leg. In a matter of moments, they went from knowing they could run a mile to being a person without a leg.
  • A person is confronted with the fact that they are an addict and enter a treatment or recovery program by choice or by mandate. They shift from being a person who uses drugs to someone who no longer lives that lifestyle and is unable or unwilling to use chemicals to alter their experience.
  • An adult becomes emotionally and cognitively aware of long-term childhood abuse. They confront the fact that they did not have the childhood that they “should” have had or that their parent was not the parent that they should have been born to.

Our identity is made up of the information our brain collects over time.  It is made up of our thoughts, beliefs about Self and World, emotions, and of course our habit behaviors that are related to all those things.  When an event happens, or we become aware of an event that shakes up that information or blocks those patterns, our brain must catch up.  That catch-up process can feel very unsettling.  We can feel angry, sad, afraid, numb, bored, elated, creatively inspired, apathetic, and exhausted.  We can feel some or all those feelings in a short span of time.

When we’re talking about substance use disorders, this kind of internal discomfort can lead to increased use, or if a person is in recovery, especially early recovery, it can prompt a relapse.  That’s easy to understand, right?

Well, here’s the thing – many of us are, right now, experiencing what might be considered a collective trauma.  Whether it is temporary or turns into an ongoing shift, our cultural identity is in flux.  In a very short period:

  • We have been told we can’t go to work.
  • We have been told to stay home, and our social outlets have been removed.
  • We have been told that we can’t gather in groups, and cultural events have been cancelled.
  • Things we were used to having aren’t readily available.
  • We have been, essentially, told that we aren’t as safe as we thought we were.

Many people, not just people who struggle with substance use disorders, are experiencing the internal discomfort mentioned above as their brains adjust to a new normal.  It is an uncomfortable time for lots of people, but for those who have a history of trauma or identity disruptions, the current situation can be re-triggering.  The body and brain REMEMBER emotions, and when those emotions rise, they often carry memories of past wounds and identity disruptions with them.  Basically, for some, the COVID-19 pandemic is not just one big, uncomfortable situation; it is a trigger that brings up those old memories and all the habit patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that go with them.  For people struggling with addictions, this could be an especially difficult space to navigate.  The need to change internal discomfort that drives substance use can be activated.  This is especially true if a person is (1) not aware of this event as collectively traumatic, (2) has not become aware of and done healing work around their own trauma history, or (3) lacks the tools to move through the complicated emotions and possible memories that might be rising at this time.

If you are struggling right now, first know that it’s okay.  There are a lot of messages out there that are encouraging creative activity, productivity, side gigs, and positive outlook.  You know what? That’s fine.  AND…

It is far better for you to be aware and accept, without shame, that you are struggling than it is to pull away or try to push through and fake it.  The 3 parts to transformation, Awareness, Acceptance and Value-Based Action apply here too.

Give yourself the space to become aware of what’s going on for you.  What are you feeling?  It might help to keep a log, to journal, or to create art to help keep track of your feelings and take note of any memories that are rising as well.

Practice non-shaming.  There is no SHOULD here.  You feel what you feel.  There is no need for shaming or judgment.  Acceptance is key.

Jump into self-compassion as a value-based behavior.  Treat yourself gently, feed yourself well, reach out to friends, and if you feel scared or as though you are losing control, reach out for professional help.  Here are some phone numbers that might be useful:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Veteran’s Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1)

You are not suffering alone, and you don’t have to manage alone either.