Trauma-Informed Responses to COVID-19

Contagious coronavirus outbreak concept with a hospital mask as a 3D render.

I think most of us are caught up with varying levels of concern, fear and anxiety for our families, ourselves, our communities, our nation and our world as each day brings new updates on the coronavirus. That said, I think it is a good time to pause and consider all this from a trauma-lens, especially with regard to the impact this can be having on children and anyone with a trauma history.

We know that by definition trauma involves a situation that evokes fear and terror because of high levels of threat. The situation is perceived as inescapable. Based on this we might say that the current situation qualifies for one that can be traumatizing for many.

When someone has a trauma history, especially when it is significant trauma that is not resolved, any situation that triggers high levels of anxiety because of a sense of danger and loss of power to escape the danger resonates against other traumas in one’s life. While most of the world is in a state of hyper- vigilance right now, those of us with trauma-histories are much more prone to much greater levels of stress and fear.

In many ways, the current situation reminds me of how we all experienced 9/11 as a time of deep uncertainty around our safety and the safety of those we love. There were so many unknowns, including what was going to unfold in the near future. Danger seemed to be lurking around every corner, especially for anyone with PTSD.

Finding healthy ways to manage the anxiety that is a natural response to danger like we are currently experiencing can be a source of comfort and strength. It is important to notice one’s internal self-talk and to monitor messages and beliefs that lead to excessive sensations of fear and anxiety.

Woman having panic disorder in city. surrounded by people walking in busy street.

Here are a few suggestions for anyone with a trauma-history:

  1. Appreciate that your trauma-history is probably making your reactions to the current situation more extreme than is needed. Know that you can challenge thoughts and beliefs that are the result of your trauma-history.
  2. It can be helpful to actually write down a safety-plan to empower yourself with the kinds of strategies that put you more in charge. Consider the ways you can greatly reduce the risk of contracting the virus. And we all need a certain number of hugs and close contact with those who are significant in all its to feed our emotional souls.
  3. Keep busy with activities that help you feel normal and productive. In addition to your regular routine, consider doing other things that help you know that you are safe and most of your world can remain normal. Perhaps do some gardening, clean out a few closets, catch up on letter writing or social media, get ready for taxes (not that that is not anxiety producing!)
  4. Stay in contact with people who are important to you. Text, message on Facebook, or make phone calls to help you appreciate that those you care about are still available to you. Keep those interactions normal and calming. 
  5. Avoid constantly monitoring the latest news. We live in a world where the media goes on its own trajectory of needing to share every possible story or update because of the great competition that exists in media. Limit yourself to only a few minutes of checking in. Make sure whatever news source you have is reliable and not prone to promoting excessive concern.
  6. Keep things in perspective. While some numbers can seem very large, like those in the thousands, remember that we live in a world with billions of people. Only a tiny percentage of people are actually being impacted.
  7. Consider ways you can nurture and support others who might also be feeling anxious. Research shows how important practicing altruism is to promote emotional and relational health.
young girl kid sitting on the floor at home looking stressed and nervous with hands on mouth biting nails.

A few thoughts for exercising preventive measures to ensure that children are not traumatized by the current situation.

  1. Remain calm, even if you have to fake the behaviors of calm. By consciously demonstrating calmness, you can often promote greater calmness within yourself.
  2. Be available to talk with your children as they have questions and or need reassurance that they are safe. Do not give too much information beyond helping children know they are safe. Provide basic information about the important measures you are taking to keep physically safe: handwashing, not touching one’s face, staying away from crowded areas.
  3. Help children figure out ways they can feel safe and enjoy life. Encourage them to be outside playing, connecting with friends, while practicing safe social distancing, doing projects that help them feel productive.
  4. Do as much to maintain normal routines.
  5. Come up with daily schedules so that you maintain predictability in their lives. All children and especially those who have trauma-histories benefit from structure and predictability.
  6. Do not allow children to overwatch the news. Just as adults can get caught up in the frenzy of being glued to television or the Internet, constantly focusing on the virus can produce a sense of overwhelming fear.

A quote from the Neuropsychology and Education Services for Children and Adolescents puts these ideas in perspective: “Most young kids will remember how their family home felt during the coronavirus panic more than anything specific about the virus. Our kids are watching us and learning about how to respond to stress and uncertainty. That is why our kids need resilience, not panic.”

Invitation for Reflections:

  1. Consider how you are being impacted emotionally by the current situation. What specifically are you thinking and feeling? Where in your body are you experiencing sensations?
  2. Consider your resources for self-care to balance staying physically safe while staying emotionally safe.
  3. Think about specific ways you can promote both physical and emotional safety with your family members and friends.
  4. Think about what you can learn from the current situation that will enhance your abilities to manage stress.

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute



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