Dr. Courtney Klein is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Executive Director of the Ardent Grove Foundation, and an associate therapist at The Catalyst Center. Three years ago, with the help of her staff and executive board, she founded the Ardent Grove Foundation, combining high-level services to people of all statuses and needs while employing student therapists.
EVERYONE HAS BEEN AFFECTED by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. We quickly learned that those of us who previously had major stressors – symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD, difficulty managing alcohol and substances, struggling with disordered eating and other difficulties – have been experiencing even more symptoms and problems during this stressful time of the pandemic. However, for the first time in our world, everyone living during the pandemic has had some sort of an effect, often negatively, from the situation. We are in a situation where everyone’s stress and possibly other symptoms have gone “up.”
The pandemic may have strongly hit you and your family, or maybe had more mild impacts such as you needing to adapt to the discomfort of wearing a mask in public places, but the stress and foreboding related to what we did not know – and still do not know – about COVID-19, and also how our own communities have been affected, has been difficult to say the least.
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We psychologists and other mental health professionals, as well as other people in the helping fields, have noticed a new form of chronic trauma developing among all kinds of people of all ages over the course of the pandemic. The concepts of going through a traumatic event and also experiencing trauma was identified and refined years ago. We understand trauma in large and small forms. Large forms would include major traumatic events like being involved in a natural disaster, a community shooting, a sexual assault, car accident, or another form of life-threatening situation. Smaller, more minor traumas can greatly affect any of us such as divorce, ongoing verbal abuse, a health scare, a loss, and basically anything that has caused our brains and bodies to be on alert. We tend to experience symptoms related to triggering and then protecting us from the same trauma occurring in the future.
To explain further, when our body experiences some sort of difficulty or trauma that felt scary, life-threatening, or was dramatically unexpected, our brains register this in a way that it becomes memorized and then re-triggered in ourselves if something similar ever happens again. The brain then starts the rest of the central nervous system to respond and protect the brain and body the next time a similar trauma happens. This could be in the form of racing heart, tingling hands, tunnel vision, a narrow focus, hyperventilation, or other similar changes to the body. The body becomes prime to fight, flee, or freeze, to protect itself. This is a wonderful way that we human beings and even other animals have learned to protect ourselves from any future event.
An example of this, evolutionarily, would be if you are going on a hunt and unexpectedly running into a tiger. You are able to get away but then the next time you are out on a similar path, before even encountering a tiger, the brain and body are triggered again. This may be because your surroundings visually remind you of where you saw the tiger, or they smell similarly. Perhaps it is a similar time of day. Or perhaps you hear similar sounds like the tiger. You are triggered, so you start to react with a faster heartbeat, your body tingling and getting ready to run or freeze, narrowing your focus on sounds and sights, and basically priming yourself to protect from another encounter with a tiger. Your brain remembered the initial traumatic experience and started to “rev up” when similar indicators came about again.
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We also do this in the present day, but usually without a trigger like encountering a tiger. For example, after a modern event of gun violence at a grocery store, you are also traumatized with part of your brain remembering the information and triggers so as to protect yourself in the future. When you are later in a similar place such as another grocery store, a bank, recreation center, library, etc, where sights, sounds, smells, or sensations may be similar enough, the body and brain start to react once again by protecting itself. You start to prepare to run or freeze just in case another traumatic experience takes place. We often cannot control this response, and instead it’s the brain and body reacting even faster than we can talk ourselves out of it to be on guard. We may not consciously be able to predict when we start to react and respond to such triggers. Our trauma responses are often not as helpful in modern times, but they very much kept human beings alive over the centuries.
Stressors and the ongoing trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic are not as specific as a singular traumatic event, or large or small traumas that were described above – rather, the pandemic has been traumatizing in many ways. We are seeing people with similar signs of trauma. You may notice them in yourself. One of these traumatic stressors related to this pandemic can be described as a person not knowing when the pandemic will actually end with life feeling safer again. This person doesn’t know of an exact cure or prevention to not contract the virus in the future. This person doesn’t know how economic, familial, community, and world affairs will be impacted by the pandemic in years to come. And this person may have specific, worse fears such as possible job loss or financial downturn, or the prospect of needing to go back into more isolation if more deadly threats develop from this pandemic. All in all, there are so many unknowns that it is hard for a person to count on what is completely safe and when we can completely feel that life has returned to the way it had been. And we therefore stay chronically vigilant and tense in order for our brains to protect themselves from these COVID-19 life-threatening stressors. We humans have been chronically stressed for at least two years, even in subtle ways due to our pandemic situation.
We have not yet been able to relax and reset. The stress on our physical systems and sense of well-being has gone on for at least two years for many of us. When the brain and body are chronically under stress we then are vulnerable to developing “stress" or “trauma responses” such as having difficulty relaxing, experiencing less rejuvenating deep sleep, feeling chronic tension in the body or head, being more prone to getting sick with minor illnesses because our immune system may be worn out, having difficulty feeling very positively or sure of things, having a shorter fuse and less tolerance for stressors that were previously more manageable, and being less interested in making social connections and engaging with others. As well, these lower level developments from trauma can increase in conjunction with deeper depression, greater anxiety, substance and alcohol abuse, problems managing anger, and more that is also developing during this time.
With hope and empathy, I can say there are ways to improve these feelings and symptoms in each of us. One way is to find ways you can still feel in control and make choices for yourself in your life. Choosing what to eat for breakfast, scheduling your day where you choose small or large breaks, looking forward to plans for the weekend and following through on them, or planning focused time with your children and family members rather than allowing it to happen whenever you “find the time,” can feel that you are in charge of and on top of what you can control in your own life. Secondly, humans do better to reduce traumatic stress when we maintain connections with each other. We feel stronger, more empowered, and more supported when we’re part of a community and when close to others. This may mean making an effort to have quality time with partners, children, and family. But it also may mean having casual, low-stress discussions and activities with friends and family where you are not focused on life’s problems but instead enjoying each other‘s company and the activity at hand. Feeling connected helps our mental health immensely. And third, acknowledging and validating that we are under stress. Recognizing that for various reasons the world has felt far less safe, is necessary. I do not mean that we stay in depression or anxiety when we acknowledge it. Consider that in order to feel more control and to move forward, we need to acknowledge and identify what has happened and where we came from. Therefore talk openly with children (at their age-appropriate levels), express frustration and fears with partners and friends, and support coworkers and community members about the stress we are all managing. Doing this will lead us to improving our feelings and symptoms about our situation.
Lastly, if you feel that it would be good to talk with somebody such as in a therapy session with a professional because you are having difficulty managing such feelings on your own, or you are experiencing an increase in any type of symptom, please do so. I believe that anyone, even more so now all of us are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, could benefit from having a private safe place to acknowledge and work through what has happened to them.
Best of luck to all of you. We will continue to get through this.
More from Dr. Klein
About the Ardent Grove Foundation
Ardent Grove is a non-profit therapy clinic focused on providing quality, trauma-informed therapeutic care and education to the community at a very low cost. AGF’s therapy clinic offers services at a minimum cost, and we treat various types of difficulties for adults, children, families, and couples, as well as psychologist testing. Through donations and grants, we are able to fulfill our mission to provide community outreach support at no cost and also affordable therapy options.
AGF's community outreach efforts include free virtual and in-person educational discussions in the form of meeting presentations, town-hall meetings, staff retreats, and podcast interviews, to various groups all over Colorado.
Please reach out for yourself, your child, or a friend and see what we can offer with a free consultation by calling 303-704-4062. The foundation would also love your support in the form of a donation.