What to do if the coronavirus pandemic is triggering your past trauma

Kristin Magaldi
·7 min read

Trigger warning: This article discusses trauma.

Right now, many people are feeling the mental ramifications of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While there isn’t yet a comprehensive study on if there’s been an increase in mental health issues within the overall population, early research has found that some people not previously diagnosed with mental health disorders are now displaying signs. For instance, a March study out of China found that health care workers treating coronavirus were more likely to develop symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and past studies have noted how loneliness and isolation—common experiences for many of us right now—can cause depression.

And for those already suffering from mental health disorders, the pandemic can exacerbate those conditions. People who have experienced varying degrees of trauma (illness-related and otherwise) in the past are especially susceptible to an increase in symptoms. Dr. Matt Grzesiak, internationally recognized psychologist and creator of the Mixed Mental Arts model, tells HelloGiggles that several aspects of the pandemic might be triggering for trauma survivors and potentially cause flashbacks.

“Round-the-clock mainstream news and social media coverage is bombarding us with horrific images of tragedy, suffering, and loss the instant they occur anywhere in the world,” notes Dr. Grzesiak. “Repeated exposure can have negative effects that overwhelm your nervous system and create further traumatic stress.” And that stress, he explains, might manifest as disbelief, fear, sadness, grief, helplessness, guilt, and/or anger.

Normally, outside of a health crisis, trauma survivors may be triggered by experiences or fears that remind them of their trauma, but the pandemic has amped that potential up to a new level. “The COVID-19 crisis has halted our lives, created economic insecurity on a micro and macro level, and completely uprooted many people’s understanding of what their life is,” says licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist Haley Neidich. “For people with existing mental health issues, especially a history of trauma, this can derail their recovery and cause a major decompensation in their functioning.” As a result, survivors may experience an increase in nightmares or panic attacks, or an inability to go about their days and maintain their relationships.

As Neidich notes, there are quite a few elements at play during the pandemic that can elicit a flashback or halt a survivor’s recovery. With the unemployment rate so high and many people hurting financially right now, for instance, the loss of money or a job can trigger people who dealt with severe instability during childhood. “Growing up with only the minimum to survive [can] activate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), by creating extreme anxiety or fear of going back to those times when we were struggling financially or personally,” explains Talkspace therapist Cynthia V. Catchings.

Another potential trigger can be grief, especially considering that coronavirus deaths stand at almost 70,000 people in the U.S., as of May 5th. Trauma therapist Diana Anzaldua tells HelloGiggles that someone with past trauma might feel grief over the many aspects of normalcy they are losing, including “loss of routine, loss of job, loss of school, loss of friends/ physical contact, in addition to the death losses of friends and family.” People may also experience anticipatory grief as death tolls continue to rise and the possibility of loved ones getting sick remains high. “So much loss at the same time, without a way to process these emotions or cope safely, can lead to mental breakdowns and depressive states,” Anzaldua explains.

Grieving someone who died of coronavirus can also be particularly hard for trauma survivors, says Neidich. “Making sense of any losses of loved ones can be challenging at this time when there is so much in flux,” she explains, but “it is nearly impossible to make sense of things, process grief, or heal from a traumatic event when the trauma of losing someone to COVID-19 is ongoing.”

Trauma survivors need to feel safe in order to process grief, Neidich adds, but that’s incredibly difficult in our current environment. For one thing, with events of more than 10 people banned, survivors mourning losses aren’t able to get adequate closure via funerals or other ceremonies. This can further impede recovery or bring up similar past experiences where they couldn’t find closure.

Isolation and loneliness due to social distancing mandates can also negatively affect trauma survivors trying to grieve. “Many of us lean on our emotional support system to feel safe and loved,” says Nicole Arzt, licensed marriage and family therapist and board member of Family Enthusiast. “While we have technology to keep us connected, it’s not the same as seeing our friends and family.”

Without usual coping mechanisms like hiking, doing yoga, or going to a favorite coffee shop, trauma survivors may feel deprived of the tools they need to handle upsetting experiencing. Add in the complete unpredictability of the future, and no wonder many people are feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

“The fear of the unknown and the uncertainty about the future are the most triggering concerns I am hearing from my clients who have trauma histories,” Neidich says. “This is especially true for folks who are experiencing financial insecurity, food insecurity, or imminent concerns about their health or safety.”

Fortunately, if you are feeling triggered by the pandemic, there are a few things you can do to help work through the stress and anxiety. Dr. Grzesiak advises paying close attention to your thought patterns at the onset of panic. “Start a journal and write down what you are feeling and when your anxiety is the most noticeable,” he suggests. This can help you identify how new circumstances are eliciting familiar feelings from your past trauma.

From there, designate a self-soothing tool you can do at home that you know will work for you, like exercising or listening to music, Dr. Grzesiak says. Apps like Calm and The Tapping Solution offer meditations aimed to soothe you through tapping specific pressure points, if you find that kind of practice helpful. And no matter what, “reach out to your closest friends or family members for support,” Dr. Grzesiak adds. “You do not need to talk about your trauma necessarily, but spending time with them and sharing your feelings is beneficial to your mental health.” This is an especially good idea if isolation has been triggering for you.

If you are currently undergoing treatment for a past trauma, exploring remote therapy options with your counselor is another step to take. But if you haven’t started mental health treatment for your trauma, Niedich suggests checking out online counseling outlets like BetterHelp or Talkspace. “Additionally, some insurance carriers are covering tele-health, so using a site like Psychology Today where you can find a community therapist who takes your insurance and is available for online counseling is another great option,” she says. If the trauma you’ve experienced is severe, finding a trauma center or EMDR practitioner—someone who specializes in treating trauma—could be a good avenue, adds Anzaldua.

Whether it’s loss, grief, uncertainty, or isolation that are triggering memories of trauma for you, there are ways to take care of yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, practice self-care, and know that resources outside of yourself are always available.

If you or anyone you know is dealing with thoughts of suicide, you can reach The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone.