Dr Kimberly A. Luse: Society Has Paid a High Price for the Pandemic from a Trauma-informed Lens
The pandemic has taken its toll that no one has known in this lifetime. To quote a line from the Hamilton musical that sums up what happened, “The World Upside Down”.
It will be a long time before we can look back to examine all the ways the world has been impacted. It’s important to understand that this added level of stress and trauma makes it even more difficult to deal with whatever life throws at us on a daily basis. There are techniques and tools that have been proven. It starts with raising the level of awareness of what has happened and what is happening and then taking back your power. The feeling of helplessness is crippling, and the anecdote to that is knowledge and empowerment.
Recognizing and understanding that trauma has been suffered as a result of the far-reaching effects of the pandemic is the first step in helping to move the needle forward in a positive direction. What exactly is trauma? To quote Bessel van der Kolk, “trauma occurs when internal and external resources are insufficient to deal with the external threat”. One of the most confusing parts of the pandemic is that we are in uncharted territory when it comes to how to navigate it, so we have the added stressor of the unknown added to the mix. The length of time the pandemic has lasted as well as the roller coaster of emotions when surfaces of additional negative information make the burden much heavier to bear.
There are three types of trauma that need to be recognized and taken into account. The first is original trauma. It is an event, or a series of events, that causes a new experience of the trauma. A personal example that I can share is when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer ten years ago and, after a courageous fight, passed away from her illness. It was traumatic for me, and I saw my children lose the death of someone they were close to for the very first time.
Last year my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I observed how trauma resulted not only as an original event, but as a second type of trauma presented itself. Re-traumatization This is what happens when an event triggers a trauma-based memory. We faced the loss of my mother, as well as a new outbreak because so many experiences reflected the loss of my mother-in-law years before.
The third type of trauma is indirect trauma. This is what happens to us when we are traumatized by seeing something happening to someone else. This has been particularly prevalent with the effect of real-time social media reporting events as well as trending events that are observed repeatedly. Examples include mass shootings, tornadoes, floods and wildfires as well as murders which have been broadcast live and televised. As humans, we are predisposed to absorb the pain of others.
Trauma changes us
Trauma changes us. It threatens our sense of security. By definition, security is the extent to which we are immune from fear and immune from physical or psychological harm. Trauma assails us and, left unrecognized, can permanently impair self-efficacy, which is our belief in the ability to be successful in specific situations and a sense of control. Chronic trauma, left unchecked, can actually reconfigure the way we process information. It can also lead to difficulties in fully engaging in the present and adapting to new situations.
Trauma affects us on all levels as well. Cognitively. Emotionally. Relatively. Physically. Have you heard anyone say during the pandemic that they have more time than they ever had in their workday because they don’t come to work? Yet they are less productive than they have ever been. It’s not because they woke up one day and lost their work ethic. This is a clear example of the effect of trauma. When you start your day above the baseline due to the extra load you are carrying from all the pandemic concerns, there is simply less free energy to focus on normal activities. , such as completion of tasks.
The impact is that the trauma alters our experience of reality and shatters the feeling that we can understand, deal with, and find meaning in the world. Over time, the defense mechanisms that can be triggered can manifest as aggression, rage, dissociation, and withdrawal. An example of dissociation is this phenomenon that occurs when a loved one dies and after the funeral is over, it can be difficult to remember the details of the day. The stereotype that it is positive to be tough and “lift your spirits” is actually the opposite of what research shows. In order to go through a trauma, it is necessary to recognize it, take the time necessary to go through it and use the support of people and tools that will translate into a momentum of transmission. Ignoring it will only work for a while, then the negative impact resurfaces, often more strongly.
One of the best gifts we can give to ourselves and to others is to extend grace. A trauma-informed approach to care shifts from “what’s wrong with this person” to “what happened to this person”. Intervening with a trauma-informed lens must be determined and practiced. It is the recognition that a real injury is due to trauma and that probably underlies the observed behaviors. Instead of annoying yourself that you or a coworker cannot withhold information, consider that there may be difficulty with withholding information due to trauma. Human beings first react to things that are identified as dangerous. The trauma requires special attention to this detail. Relationships can be disrupted. Withdrawal can occur. The traumatization leads to a constant search for danger or the fall of the other shoe.
Self-management is a crucial part of dealing with stress triggered by trauma. Give yourself permission to step back and breathe. Acknowledge what’s going on. Validate it. Ask and extend compassion. Then make a thoughtful decision on how best to move forward. Create safe spaces in the physical, social, psychological and moral areas of your life.
The advice I often give to clients is to make a commitment to personal care plans. Quite often people put themselves last on their calendars. Days turn into weeks and weeks into months. It is as if the self-care plan is actually a placeholder for an appointment to meet the needs of everyone else. There has to be a change in thinking that personal care is expendable. It’s not. These two long years have shown an increased need to zealously keep the time necessary to look after one’s well-being. Do it for yourself. Do it for those you love. Encourage those in your sphere of influence to take a look at all the resources available to deal with trauma. Employers, encourage a trauma-informed approach to care in the workplace. There are models that embed this into the very fabric of an organization.
It is an investment worth making. In fact, it is an issue that is more critical today than ever before.
Dr. Kimberly A. Luse is Founder and President of Strategic Ethical Solutions International.