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What’s Happening to Me?

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

Trauma Responses During COVID-19

| By Micah Davis, MSW, CSW

The world is a really weird place right now. A lot of changes have occurred too quickly to adapt to easily. Combine that with a loss of security and predictability, which many of us are experiencing, and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster!

If you find yourself as a disrupted person living in this chaotic, upheaved world right now, you also may have noticed changes in how you’re feeling. Maybe you’ve just felt “off,” or “not yourself.” Maybe you’ve had trouble sleeping or found yourself growing less patient with your loved ones. The good news is all of this is manageable, and I’ll tell you why.

What is a trauma response and how is it responsible for my feelings today?

A long time ago, your ancestors faced very real, concrete threats to their survival on a regular basis. Let’s talk about being eaten by a wild animal. In response to these threats, their brains send signals to the rest of their body in preparation for flight (running away), fighting, or sometimes freezing (withdrawing). You’ve heard this called our flight or fight response. These physiological changes largely affected the blood supply (and therefore the available oxygen) in preparing the body to respond quickly and effectively.

Trauma responses are a good thing!

Our bodies are so smart, they learned how to adapt to keep our ancestors alive among threats from wild animals, natural disasters, other humans, and any other mortal threat.

Here’s the thing: that part of our brains is still very much alive and active. We sometimes call it the “lizard brain,” in reference to the fact that it’s one of the earliest or most primal parts of the brain to form (I also just enjoy the image of a lizard hanging out in my brain). It’s called the limbic system (the amygdala in particular), and some of its jobs are to detect fear and danger and to respond emotionally and behaviorally.

It can be set off by something tiny that you may not even recognize in the moment: a smell, a phrase, a texture. This part of your brain is also linked closely to memory, so if something in your environment reminds you of something you have previously learned to be afraid of, it can set off that fight/flight/freeze response regardless of the level of threat actually present.

These little reminders of scary things are called “triggers,” and they can be small but enormously powerful. Even if you aren’t consciously aware of a trigger, you can still recognize the physiological changes: rushes of adrenaline, shallow breathing, racing heart.

If you were preparing to run away from a lion, these would be very helpful and needed changes. If you’re just trying to go about your life in the modern world, not so much.

There can also be more subtle signs that our brains are perceiving a threat:

  1. Feeling overwhelmed, generally feeling “on edge” or quicker to react emotionally than we otherwise would be

  2. An ongoing feeling that our physical and mental energy has been depleted.

  3. Spending so much time on alert, ready to respond to danger in the environment, takes its toll on our minds and bodies, and eventually shows up one way or another.

For many of us, COVID-19 may leave us feeling overwhelmed, on edge, or depleted mentally and emotionally.

Living during the era of COVID-19 has flipped life upside down. Our day-to-day life looks vastly different than it did a few months ago. None of us ever expected to live through a time like this. We have had to adapt quickly without knowing what to expect in the future while simultaneously mourning our idea of “normal.”

This loss of routine, structure, and predictability can trigger deep feelings of insecurity and a lack of safety. Of course, COVID-19 can also pose a very real threat to safety, particularly if you or someone close to you is at a higher risk of being infected or for complications. However, even in the absence of the virus itself, we are still acutely aware of the risk or possibility, and our lizard brains have noticed.

You might feel it before you know it.

You may have noticed changes in your sleeping and/or eating habits. You may have noticed a general, vague sense of unease, and said you feel “off.” You may have noticed that you are quicker to become irritable or impatient with other people. You may find any task exhausting. You may have become hypervigilant, taking in all the information you can and doing everything you can to try to protect yourself and your household. Or you may feel totally helpless and wonder if anything you try to do to offset the spread of the virus actually matters.

Good news! All of these are completely expected responses to the times we’re living in and what our lizard brain continues to tell us about them. If you feel any or all of these things, you are fine. The problem is not you. And there’s a good chance that others around you are experiencing the same or similar things.

More Good News: there are ways to cope with trauma responses!

Although the lizard brain is quick to react, we can step in to try to mitigate or slow down those physiological responses. Deep breathing can be extremely helpful, as several of the associated responses, like quickened heart rate, can also be lessened by deliberately slowing our breathing.

There are several different kinds of breathing exercises you can try, but one I really like is called square breathing: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts. Not only does this regulate your breathing, but the slow counting also gives you something to focus on rather than any anxiety you may be experiencing.

Another exercise I recommend is a 54321 Exercise. This is called a grounding exercise, as it “grounds” you or helps you to remain rooted right here, in the moment, in your body, in reality. If you start to feel your lizard brain getting activated, practice becoming more aware of your surroundings:

  • Count 5 things you can see (what color are the walls? Who’s around you? Are there details you haven’t noticed before?)

  • 4 things you can touch/feel (the surface you’re sitting/standing on, your feet in your shoes, the texture of your clothes)

  • 3 things you can hear (traffic outside, distant chatter, birds chirping)

  • 2 things you can smell (are there candles? Food cooking? Perfume?)

  • 1 thing you can taste (the last thing you ate/drank, toothpaste, gum, etc.)

This exercise is especially helpful because it only asks you to acknowledge what’s around you in this current moment. Abstract thought can be difficult if you’re in a trauma space or a state of heightened anxiety. The 54321 exercise only asks you to focus on the concrete, what’s right in front of you.

Is your lizard quiet? Here’s what’s next!

Once you’ve quieted your lizard brain and convinced it that you’re not in immediate danger, I would encourage you to evaluate the reaction and what brought it up at this moment specifically.

If I find that I’m worried about something, it’s helpful to ask myself, “Is there anything that I can do about this right now?” 95% of the time, the answer is no: I’m worried about something that either has already happened or something that might happen. This means it’s only happening in my head, and guess what? That means I can also let it go.

I know this is easier said than done, and it’s not meant to dismiss anyone’s emotions or experiences. It’s only meant as a reminder that you have more control than you think you do.

More generally, some things we can do to try and mitigate this underlying fear are:

  • Find routine. It will still be different from your previous version of normal, but some kind of routine and predictability can help get back some feeling of security and safety.

  • Find comfort and moments of peace wherever you can, no matter how small. This might mean listening to music you find comforting or relaxing, lighting candles,

reading a favorite book – find what helps you, and try to find ways to work it into your routine.

  • Remember your support network. We can’t physically be together, but we can still check in on each other. If you’re reading a blog post, there’s a good chance you have access to technology that makes it easier than ever to stay connected. Remember we are all going through these changes, and none of us have to do it alone.

  • Make an appointment with a professional for online counseling. People are waiting to help you manage these responses, and the online format can make these services more accessible than they may have been previously.

If you take nothing else away from this quick read, please know that if you’re having difficulty with all the chaos of the world right now, that is completely okay and understandable. Your limbic system may be in overdrive, but it’s just trying to protect you. If it’s becoming difficult to manage or you would like some extra support, reach out to us.

We’ll be here when you’re ready.

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