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Dr. Kimberly A. Luse: Society has paid a high price for the pandemic from a trauma-informed lens

The pandemic has exacted a toll that no one has experienced in this lifetime. To quote a line from the musical Hamilton that sums up what has happened, “The World Turned Upside Down.”

It will be a long time before we will be able to look back to examine all the ways the world has been impacted. It is important to understand that this additional level of stress and trauma compounds the task of handling everything else life challenges us with daily. There are techniques and tools that have been proven to help. It begins with raising the level of awareness about what has and is happening and then taking back your power. The feeling of helplessness is crippling, and the anecdote to that is knowledge and self-empowerment.

Recognizing and understanding that trauma has been experienced due to the far-reaching effects of the pandemic is the first step in helping to move the needle in a positive direction. What is trauma, exactly? To quote Bessel van der Kolk, “Traumatization occurs when both internal and external resources are inadequate to cope with the external threat.” One of the most confounding components of the pandemic is that we are in unchartered territory regarding how to navigate it, so we have the additional stressor of the unknown added into the mix. The length of time that the pandemic has lasted along with the roller coaster ride of emotions when additional negative news surfaces make the load that much heavier to carry.

Dr. Kimberly A. Luse

There are three types of trauma that need to be recognized and considered. The first is original trauma. This is an event, or series of events, that cause trauma to be freshly experienced. A personal example I can share is when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer ten years ago, and after a brave fight, died from her disease. It was traumatic for me, and I watched as my children experienced losing someone to death that they were close to for the very first time.

Last year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I observed how much trauma resulted not only as an original occurrence but as the second type of trauma presented itself. Re-traumatization is what happens when an event triggers a memory that is trauma-based. We dealt with the loss of my mother, as well as being re-triggered because so many of the experiences mirrored the loss of my mother-in-law years before.

The third type of trauma is vicarious trauma. This is what happens to us when we are traumatized by witnessing something that happens to someone else. This has been especially prevalent with the effect of social media reporting events in real-time as well as trending events that are witnessed repeatedly. Examples include mass shootings, tornados, flooding and wildfire coverage as well as the murders that have been live-streamed and televised. As human beings, we are predisposed to absorb the pain of others.

Trauma changes us

Trauma changes us. It threatens our sense of safety. By definition, safety is the extent to which we are free from fear and secure from physical or psychological harm. Trauma assails us and left unrecognized can permanently alter self-efficacy, which is our belief in the ability to succeed in specific situations and a sense of control. Chronic trauma, left unchecked, can actually rewire how we process information. It also can lead to difficulties to engage fully in the present and adapting to new situations.

Trauma also affects us on every level. Cognitively. Emotionally. Relationally. Physically. Have you heard someone say during the pandemic that they have more time than they have ever had in their workday before because they are not commuting to work? Yet, they are less productive than they have ever been. That is not because they woke up one day and lost their work ethic. That is a clear example of the effect of trauma. When you begin your day above baseline because of the extra load you are carrying due to all the concerns around the pandemic, there is simply less energy that is free to focus on normal activities, such as completing work assignments.

The impact is that trauma alters our experience of reality and shatters the sense that we can understand, manage and find meaning in the world. Over time, the defense mechanisms that can be triggered can show up as aggression, rage, dissociation, and withdrawal. An example of dissociation is that phenomenon that is experienced when a loved one dies, and after the funeral is over it may be hard to recall the details of the day. The stereotype that it is positive to be tough, and, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is actually the opposite of what the research demonstrates. In order to move through trauma, one must recognize it, take the time necessary to move through it, and utilize the support of people and tools that will result in forwarding momentum. Ignoring it will only work for so long, and then the negative impact will resurface, often more strongly.

Extend grace

One of the best gifts we can give to ourselves and to others is to extend grace. A trauma-informed care approach moves away from, “what is wrong with that person” to, “what has happened to that person.” Intervening with a trauma-informed lens has to be purposeful and practiced. It is the recognition that a true injury occurs due to trauma, and that likely underlie the behaviors that are being witnessed. Instead of getting aggravated that you or a coworker cannot retain information, consider that there may be difficulty retaining information due to trauma. Human beings respond first to things that are identified as dangerous. Trauma requires attention to that detail. Relationships can be disrupted. Withdrawal can occur. Traumatization results in constantly looking for danger, or for the other shoe to drop.

Self-management is a crucial component of handling stress triggered by trauma. Give yourself permission to step back and breathe. Acknowledge what is happening. Validate it. Ask for and extend compassion. Then make a purposeful decision about the best way to move forward. Create safe spaces in the physical, social, psychological and moral realms of your life.

Advice I often give to clients is to make a commitment to self-care plans. So often, people will put themselves last on their calendars. Days stretch into weeks and weeks into months. It is as if the self-care plan is actually a placeholder for an appointment to attend to everyone else’s needs. There has to be a shift in the thinking that self-care is expendable. It is not. These last two long years have demonstrated a heightened need to zealously guard the time necessary to attend to self-wellness. Do it for yourself. Do it for those you love. Encourage those in your sphere of influence to take a look at all the resources available to deal with trauma. Employers, foster a trauma-informed care approach in the workplace. There are models that embed this into the very fabric of an organization.

It is an investment worth making. In fact, it is one that is more critical today than possibly ever before.

Dr. Kimberly A. Luse is founder and president of Strategic Ethical Solutions International.

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One Comment

  1. Mary Ann Shallberg says:

    Excellent article, Kimberly!

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