For people living with trauma, the coronavirus outbreak can be a trigger, or familiar psychological territory

Trauma tampers with our ability to make sense of the world with the help of previously acquired templates. This is similar to living through a pandemic, where no one knows what events will transpire and what their outcomes will be.

Prateek Sharma June 26, 2020 17:10:31 IST
For people living with trauma, the coronavirus outbreak can be a trigger, or familiar psychological territory

Among the many mental health concerns that have emerged as a response to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, where anxiety stemming from uncertainty has become a collective experience, is that some individuals feel their emotional responses don't match those of the people around them.

For example, 24-year-old Akshata (name changed upon request), who has been dealing with anxiety and attachment trauma for over four years, finds that there has been a difference in her mental state of late. "Everyone was panicking at the beginning of this pandemic, but I wasn’t. It seemed okay, but halfway through, it struck me that I have genuinely felt nothing — no panic or shifts in emotion," she says. She attributes this to how the experience of chaos may be familiar to her. "Being hyper-aroused and vigilant has become acceptable in society... Now everyone knows what it is I go through everyday,” she adds.

As societies struggle to fight the pandemic, psychological turmoil abounds, but for people like Akshata, this dysregulated state of emotions seems all too familiar. The majority of these people are those who have struggled with psychological trauma for a long period of time.

For people living with trauma the coronavirus outbreak can be a trigger or familiar psychological territory

The similarities between trauma as a personal experience and the collective experience of the #COVID19 pandemic proves that mental illness is not an isolated phenomenon. Illustration by Satwick Gade

Though chaos contains within it an element of familiarity that is universal in nature, it can also be acquired. Scenarios and settings change, but this tendency to detect chaotic familiarity endures in humans. The cluster of symptoms that mark mental trauma include dysregulation of emotions, inability to trust others, being vigilant of unfamiliar spaces, intrusive thoughts and bouts of hyperarousal signs, such as anxiety.

This is why people who have been fighting psychological trauma feel little to no difference in their responses to changes around them, in this current moment. The label seems different, but the reaction is the same. Explanations for this phenomenon lie in both psychosocial as well as neurological perspectives.

The brain’s ability to recognise threats

How trauma impacts the brain and changes its systems helps us understand the parallels between the experience of people who have dealt directly with trauma, and of those currently experiencing the adverse effects of the pandemic. In her book Trauma and Recovery, acclaimed trauma therapist and researcher Judith Herman writes, “...Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life."

Trauma tampers with our ability to make sense of the world with the help of previously acquired templates.

This is similar to living through a pandemic, where no one knows what events will transpire and what their outcomes will be.

“Repetitive traumatic events in life trigger our stress-response system, activating it over and over again to help us fight the threatening event,” says Kartiki Keshkamat, a clinical psychologist based in Pune. “This later causes the individual to interpret most things around them as potential threats,” she adds. Based on the nature of these events, our brain goes on to form neural connections and memories, in terms of how the event was experienced through the five senses.

When someone's internal experience mirrors that of others, there is a spark of insight. “Dealing with emotional dysregulation and anxiety becomes a part of the everyday struggle for those with trauma,” Kartiki explains, “The brain is capable of recognising this struggle when it is observed in other people, and as a result, some people may not feel as disturbed in this period as others, because this is not new to them. However, this may not mean that it is comforting."

Many experts have pointed out that the current pandemic itself may become a trigger for those who have been through trauma before, because of this very familiarity. “We are highly likely to see a surge in post-traumatic stress. It can be reminiscent of earlier traumatic events, as well as induce new ones. There is a dire need to be very sensitive to people’s psychological well-being, both individually and publicly, even in the near future,” Kartiki says.

Coping mechanisms and empathy

Finding familiarity in the nature of emotional states is neither a good or a bad thing, but rather an unfortunate lesson in empathy. While in the past, people with mental health issues had to undergo a denial of their experiences because of social stigma, the current times have forced everyone to learn what it is like to live with extreme distress. "I’ve noticed that people are now comfortable with being sad, or lonely or miserable. This is freeing, because it is normalising something that has existed even before the pandemic," Akshata remarks.

An inseparable feature of trauma is guilt. Not only is guilt associated with the individual's past experiences, where they continue to blame themselves for not being able to better fight the event, but also with the socio-cultural aftermath of having experienced a traumatic event in the first place. On the other hand, the collective experience of distress during the COVID-19 pandemic can help people understand how guilt constantly induces pain in people coping with trauma.

Kartiki also outlines the value of coping mechanisms that people who seek help for their issues are able to develop. “Sometimes people may not feel as anxious due to personal factors such as resilience, which can help them cope with chronic stressors quite well, and also without the associated guilt. If someone is curious as to why they don’t seem to have the same response to a situation as others, this may be a result of how well they have developed their own coping mechanisms and are able to use them now,” she explains.

Akshata's thoughts echo this; she talks about her own coping strategies that she has long been using to deal with trauma. “My coping mechanisms to deal with the current chaos are refined and I have not had to learn them from scratch, which is why I think my stress levels aren’t as high as everyone else’s.”

This notion of the familiarity of chaos does not imply that the degree to which different people are suffering is comparable. All experiences are subjective and different. For those with issues like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and illness anxiety disorder (also known as hypochondriasis), this time could be comparatively much more difficult. Similarly, for those coping with trauma who are stuck with their sources of distress, such as abusive relationships and households, living through a lockdown has been increasingly triggering.

But this nuance of familiarity across personal and collective experiences makes it important to understand that mental illness is not an isolated phenomenon.

Both health and ailment lie on the same continuum of living and being in a world full of threats. All degrees and frequencies of experiences make sense and should be given space of expression, as nobody truly knows what the future will look like.

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