Pandemic Wall or Traumatic Stress?: A look at our psychological landscape

A beloved Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has died, leaving many of us grief stricken and anxious at a time when our basic human rights are already in the balance. Simultaneously, fires continue to sear large swaths of the west coast with accompanying smoke that is making it hard for people to breathe. In the south the weather forecasters tell us we’re in the midst of a highly active hurricane season. Not only do we live in a country facing previously unfathomable  political turbulence and climactic disasters, we are each inevitably coping with the changing reality of covid-19, as well as a very real and visible escalation in racial violence and injustice, a struggling economy, and questions about how to safely educate our kids.

As a psychologist in private practice offering virtual therapy  since mid March, I have had the opportunity to speak with health care workers assigned to our local COVID unit, teachers who miss their students yet fear being infected with COVID-19 when they return to the classroom, people of color scared for their safety, and working parents, already depleted, who are being called on to homeschool their children.

Over the past six months I’ve been extremely concerned about the additive stress caused by the multiplicity of co-occurring challenges initiated by the current time period. Additionally, given the reality that life in this country is less than idyllic for most, each of us entered 2020 with our own unique baseline of pre-existing circumstances. All of this left me wondering whether we’ve already reached an emotional tipping point in this country. I explored the available research, looking to the data for some answers.

To be clear, feeling anxious or depressed at this time is a perfectly appropriate response to the current state of affairs in this country. In the month of July 2020, respondents to a survey by the American Psychological Association reported feeling increasingly frustrated (40%), scared (24%), and angry (18%). Furthermore, a full 60% of U.S. adults said that they considered police violence toward people of color to be a significant source of stress. Emotional struggles have even been expressed by public figures such as Michelle Obama, who recently shared that she’s suffering from a “low-grade depression” (Aug. 5, 2020) and Brene Brown who disclosed that “some days I feel on top of my anxiety and some days it crashes over me”. (Aug. 7, 2020)

More somber though, is the data indicating an onset of trauma related symptoms, suicidal ideation, and increased substance use during this time. A study released by the CDC on August 14, 2020, surveyed close to 5,500 respondents in the US, and found that in addition to relatively high rates of depression and anxiety (30.9%), 13% reported increased substance use, 26% reported increased trauma and stress disorders (TSRD) related to COVID-19, and 11% had given serious thought to suicide. When compared with white respondents, individuals who identified as Hispanic or Black scored significantly higher on the measures of TSRD, substance use, and suicidal thoughts. 

It appears that for many, the tipping point has already been reached. As a trauma therapist, this has been my singular fear and gravest concern. The fact that many individuals are suicidal and experiencing traumatic stress, tells us that they  have reached the point of being completely overwhelmed. Trauma is defined by renowned trauma researcher, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk as “an experience that basically leaves people stuck in a state of helplessness and terror. Mind and brain become overwhelmed, resulting in a change over how you perceive danger, and what you consider relevant and irrelevant to your survival”.

While this data is clearly very concerning, I do believe that with early intervention we can help prevent catastrophic outcomes. Although the external stress we’re currently experiencing doesn’t show signs of abetting any time soon, we do have choices, including the courageous act of seeking assistance from a psychotherapist when necessary. We must do our best to overcome the urge of falling into a chronic state of despair especially when the magnetism to do so feels impossible to resist.

Survive 

Seek emotional connection and Stay connected to your Support network

Understand that you’re not alone 

Reflect on your strengths 

Verbalize your truths by sharing your story.  

Intentionally find meaning and purpose in your daily life

Validate your feelings even when others don’t acknowledge them.

Empower and encourage others to do all of the above as well

References 

Obama, M. (Producer). (2020, August 5). The Michelle Obama Podcast. [Audio podcast]. https:www.spotify.com

Brown, B. (2020, August 7). Some days I feel on top of may anxiety and some days it crashes over me. [Excerpt from status update]. Retrieved from https:www.facebook.com/brenebrown/

Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1

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Guzman, IB. How the Body Keeps the Score: An Interview with Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. Brainworldmagazine.com; August 14, 2019.