Trauma Survivorship in the Days of COVID-19 Quarantine: Permission to be OK Exactly as You AreApril 22, 2020
Dr. Kristen Zaleski, clinical associate professor
As many Americans hit the month milestone of being quarantined at home, some have been surprised by the changes in their body’s regulatory systems: sleeping and eating disturbances, feelings of anxious energy coupled with total exhaustion, increased dreaming and even nightmares. For some, this might be their first experience of what it is like to live―and have your body adapt―to feelings of helplessness and fear. But, for at least 10% of Americans (and even more than that if you identify as female and/or part of the LGBT community) this is a reminder of what it was like to recover from sexual violence.
Unlike this epidemic where we all, collectively, are sharing in this moment and can relate to one another, most survivors of sexual violence suffered these feelings alone and without support or guidance. Whether the trauma happened decades ago or days ago, its normal for your body to ‘remember’ and remind you of what it was like when you were in early recovery of being victimized. If this is happening to you, it does not mean you are broken, it means you―and your body―are functioning by design.
As the country grapples with creating safety to re-engage in our ‘old’ lives in the wake of COVID-19, some trauma survivors need to find safety in their body, mind, and social environment now. Here are some immediate strategies that are designed to result in immediate relief and cultivation of calm at a time when many need it most.
Following any traumatic event, the first phase of recovery involves calming the body and its resulting activation in your nervous system. Body-based stress can change your feelings of hunger and sleeping, it can affect your startle response (being more jumpy and easily surprised) and for many your libido and ability to relax may be very different than before the quarantine. These are all responses centering in your nervous system and require body based interventions (hint, just talking about it won’t do much to help).
- Breathe… mindfully. How long has it been since you’ve taken a real belly breath? Put two hands on your body, one on your chest and other on your stomach, and see if your chest hand rises first and your stomach hand rises after. Do deep, five-second inhales, hold your breath for a minute, and exhale for just as long (or longer). Vary the length of time you do deep breaths. Set a timer for two minutes and do nothing but mindfully breathe. You will feel an immediate relief.
- Limit Caffeine Consumption. I know, this is a bummer to read. You don’t have to cut caffeine out totally (unless you drink very little to begin with) but acknowledging your body is sensitive during this time and cutting out substances that may heightened your stress and alertness can be helpful. Basic strategies: limit yourself to one cup of caffeine a day and don’t drink it after 10 a.m.
- Exercise is great, but keep your heart rate to 120 beats a minute or engage in a relaxation strategy immediate after a hard work out. Exercise equipment has sold out across the country, which means many people are upping their exercise routine at home. This is great for long-term mental and body wellness. But, your nervous system is trying to get regulated and your HIIT workouts may be exacerbating the high calibration. Try to do activities that don’t spike your heart rate like pilates, swimming, yoga and walking. If you must do higher intensity, engage your nervous system immediately afterwards with a low-stress meditation or breathing exercise.
As the body settles in, some survivors may notice their thoughts racing, or even being clouded with memories of the trauma that are hard to escape. These are important reactions that your body is having to the new stress COVID-19 is causing, and it can cause trauma “triggers” or small reminders that trigger your mind’s sense of calm. After calming your body, try the following strategies to achieve a sense of relief in your thoughts.
- Document Your Thoughts. After you have engaged your body in some calming strategies, try to engage your mind. For some trauma survivors, this may mean that you have to acknowledge you are reliving memories of your trauma. Some researchers and therapists believe trauma memories are ‘stuck’ and need to be sorted through. One strategy to try is to ask yourself, “when did I know I was safe after that happened?” Move your focus from the traumatic event replaying in your mind to the time you knew were safe and okay. Write down that memory. List other moments of safety that have followed you since that trauma. How have people/places in your life made you feel safe since that moment?
- Being mindfully present in this uncomfortable moment. For many trauma survivors, these reactivating moments can be frustrating and you want to leave it immediately. For people with addiction histories, the urge to engage in substance use and abuse may be a reasonable strategy for escape. But, what if you didn’t avoid your anxiety and fear? Instead, what if you safely allowed your mind to feel the feelings? One strategy is to set a timer for two minutes and give yourself permission to feel whatever it is that is uncomfortable. Does it have a temperature? Does it make a sound? Does it have a color? Animate that feeling in your body and be with it, allowing it space. When your two-minute timer goes off, you have permission to do something else. Or, if you are still feeling okay, engage in another two minutes of acknowledgement.
Reconnection to others who feel safe
Online communities are filled with supportive, trauma informed audiences who welcome you exactly as you are. A recent study just published asked 20 survivors of sexual violence how they experience publicly posting their sexual assault narrative online. Of the 20 reported, 18 were positive experiences and felt a connection to advocacy and resiliency as a result. However, some online communities―like comment threads of news articles—are filled with e-bile, or trolling behaviors that are out to hurt and debate others. Find your audience to engage with in safe spaces designed for survivors and survivor advocacy. A few of my favorites are:
- Become Involved Virtually In your Community to Advocate for Survivors of Sexual Violence. The month of April has many events you can attend to have your voice heard and connect with other survivors. With the new ‘shelter in place’ order, many events are going virtual. More information.
- The Badass Army. This grassroots organization fights online forms of abuse, particularly revenge porn, and is a strong group of passionate survivors.
- Feel Good Tumblr. If you don’t want to volunteer your time, but find a supportive atmosphere to feel heard check out the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s “Feel Good Tumblr." They state their website will always be positive and never require a trigger warning.
- RAINN.org. The largest sexual violence nonprofit in the country is filled with ways to engage and advocate in your community including mental health referrals for yourself in your community.
- Instagram Advocates. Instagram is filled with positive feminist, LGBTQ affirming, artistic individuals who are promoting daily messages of wellness, resilience and recovery. Use your favorite positive key words and follow some new Insta accounts for your daily visual reflection and connection.
Of course, if you find yourself in a place of real trauma reminders that are making it hard to function, reach out for supportive therapy. As COVID-19 takes hold, telehealth is common and makes it even easier to find psychotherapy in the comfort of your home. Find a state service provider (it doesn’t have to be local since its telehealth) and connect to an individual therapist or group therapy center. Referrals across the country for advocacy and information on therapy can be found here:
Safety can mean different things for everyone. It is important to recognize that this time of isolation requires many victims of child abuse and domestic abuse to be isolated with their abusers. Domestic violence shelters and child protective agencies are working hard to ensure that victims can escape their environments and if you are one of them, seek help to leave your abusive home and find safety here: