Coronavirus: Will We Survive the Collective Trauma?

Warde Bou Daher
Lebanese Psychologist

People have been discussing the notion that this pandemic might have taught them a lesson in life about appreciating the blessings granted to them. Is this a possible response to trauma?

Previous pandemic research on influenza and the Ebola virus cases have shown that pandemics affect not only people’s physical health but also their mental health.

To date, COVID-19 has been contracted by more than 3 million people around the globe. Due to the pandemic, almost every human being on earth is sharing the worry of losing their life to it, or that of a loved one. The virus has hit everyone around the world equally, regardless of their nationality, race, religion, economic status, education level, or age. Conversations have arisen about the extent to which these events have been traumatizing, with questions surrounding the short- and long-term effects of the lockdown.

By definition, trauma is the damage incurred on the mind as a result of a distressing event or a series of events that can physically or emotionally harm or threaten the life of an individual.

There is a great concept that I learned about during my studies on Trauma: Post-Traumatic Growth. It can be simplified in an expression we all know: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Post traumatic growth is defined by researchers as a development due to a traumatic event and therefore the person experiences positive change and growth following the event.

“I’ve never wished for work hours to not end. I just don’t want to go home knowing that I might be taking the virus to my family,” Tonina Karam, a supermarket employee tells Daraj.

It seems like humanity is enduring a collective trauma, given that a massive number of humans are simultaneously worried about death, whether it be theirs or their loved ones. The perpetrator is a new virus that humans can only battle by being extremely cautious; it’s initial and only form of defense at the moment is the avoidance of human contact, as no vaccine or medication have been successfully discovered.

The Vulnerable and Trauma

Trauma Informed Care aims at understanding responses to trauma in patients. Individuals do not respond to the same traumatic event similarly; Coping skills, resilience, community support, previous experiences and many others are factors that affect a person’s reaction to a traumatizing event.

The mild short-term effects of trauma include sadness, confusion, dissociation, exhaustion, and anxiety. There are also long-term reactions, which include sleep disorders, fear of recurrence, avoidance of emotions, and flashbacks.

It should be noted that the effects are not only related to the fear of being infected with the virus. Huge psychological impact could be caused by a variety of other social factors.

“Pregnant women who already needed support in time of labor previous to the pandemic, are having to go through it all alone due to the new restrictions in hospitals. This might have long-term effects on woman’s mental health”, Farah Kanj, a midwife, tells Daraj.

Since the appearance of the virus we’ve also witnessed a rise in discrimination against people who are infected or could be infected with the virus. In Lebanon, news broke about a Chinese man who spoke up about being called “Corona” on the streets, knowing that he has been residing in Lebanon for more than a year; he was unfortunately not the only case. Many people have been named and shamed due to the spread of the virus. The psychological effects of this stigma are various, and include depression, anxiety, and feelings of rejection, ostracism and loneliness.

These effects are even harder to deal with for those who were already facing psychological hardships before the beginning of the lockdown.

Violence and Loneliness

Studies have shown a rise in domestic abuse worldwide. Violence of course, has a drastic effect on a person’s mental health, as it is a traumatic experience by itself. During this lockdown, many had to remain indoors for a long period of time with their perpetrator and are therefore living into two distinct traumas at the same time . They cannot escape danger whether they are inside or outside the house. Therefore, the traumatic effects brought about by COVID-19 are more severe and experienced much more intensely on those cases.

Then of course, there’s the elderly; the media has consistently focused on the high risk of the elderly’s death. Elderly people who might have already felt lonely before the pandemic were faced immediately with two harsh realities: (1) being at an incredibly high and dangerous risk of dying if they catch the virus and (2) having to remain indoors alone, most likely away from other family members, so that they can be protected from catching the virus.

The list of excessive mental distress goes on to include every child and adult who were already living with psychological disorders like autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, any phobias, anxiety and others.

COVID-19 Conditioning

Although Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most widely acknowledged consequences resulting from trauma, it is not the only mental effect that could arise from a traumatic event. In fact for the most part, people recover from PTSD if they were well supported by loved ones like friends and family, and in some cases depending on the type of trauma don’t necessarily develop it at all. Others are likely to develop other mental issues. PTSD is only one of the options on the list that also includes depression and anxiety, which in many cases eventually leads to substance abuse.

Still, it seems many people are planning what they will first do when the lockdown ends. Some want to travel, others want to go clubbing, and many just want to go out to hug and kiss everyone they know. Are these the first things that are going to occur?

“I don’t think I will be able to come close to people anytime soon,” is a phrase I kept hearing muttered under people’s breath when they discussed COVID-19.

We are currently being conditioned by this virus that human contact is linked to danger. To put it simply, we are learning that when a person comes closer to us (the stimuli), our response should be to move backwards away from the other human. We are witnessing such scenarios happening in the market, pharmacies, or any other place in which we happen to meet other humans in public. Washing hands, spraying alcohol, and keeping a social distance are becoming habits for many. The process of unlearning all this will take some time, even after being informed that this pandemic has ended.

Positive Effects Arising From Trauma

Many have been discussing the idea that this pandemic has taught them a life lesson to value their blessings and grow stronger. Is this a possible response to trauma?

There is a great concept that I learned about during my studies on Trauma: Post-Traumatic Growth. It can be simplified in an expression we all know: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Post traumatic growth is defined by researchers as a development due to a traumatic event and therefore the person experiences positive change and growth following the event.

Some will get out of this trauma with more power, more resilience, and more achievements.

However, it is very important to not undermine the effects of the trauma in the name of support and post-traumatic growth. The productivity contest that has been spreading around social media could have drastic effects on many. People react to trauma differently and we need to acknowledge this to be able to support each other to get out of this pandemic with the minimum amount of collateral damage.

This can only be done by supporting one another and working on the development of programs by specialists that are accessible for everyone in need.

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