Kate Graham, psychotherapist and spokesperson for UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), shares her professionally informed perspective on trauma and Covid-19. And advises those who may be affected by these emotions.
When memories and experiences are in charge we can feel totally at sea, and struggle to recognise ourselves in these moments. It is confusing and frightening - and contains a huge energy and intensity that seems to come from nowhere.
It is widely reported that people’s mental health is deteriorating as the pandemic and successive lockdowns unfold. Services are busy, waiting lists are growing, trying to stem the tide of anxiety and depression that is rising as we lose contact with each other, meet increasing uncertainty and the fear that everything is falling apart.
“I feel scared and panicky in a way I have never felt before.”
I am noticing that this fear and uncertainty is affecting some people far more than others, even if not directly affected. These people may feel their reaction is out of proportion to their situation and feel shocked by their reactions. As a client said:
“I feel overwhelmed, flooded by a sort of feeling, fear, I guess… It feels like I'm not me.”
Feeling we have lost our grip on ourselves is scary. What I am finding is that in each case, a past painful memory is being triggered - and it is the trauma response that is overwhelming us. When memories and experiences are in charge we can feel totally at sea and feel lost. It can be confusing and frightening, an energy and intensity that seems to come from nowhere.
If you are experiencing these overwhelming reactions, it does not mean that there is some terrible trauma lurking in your background.
It may be simply that you are being switched back to a time when you didn't feel safe, maybe were bullied at school, or weren’t believed about something by your parents or teachers, struggled with siblings, or sustained a significant loss early in life.
Recognising that this is happening can be a relief, and old trauma can be met and dissolved - with care, in therapy.
How would you know if it is an experience being triggered, rather than purely feeling anxious about the present?
Some signs are:
- A sudden and intense feeling of being overwhelmed, flooded by feelings that feel different, that leave you wondering who you are in that moment.
- Feelings that come out of nowhere, like ‘one minute I am doing fine, the next I’m panicking’.
- Rituals and rules that used to feel a source of safety, now become unmanageably controlling.
- Physical symptoms that come out of the blue, such as your heart racing, sweaty palms, temperature changes, and a tightness in your chest.
What can you do to help yourself if you are experiencing these onslaughts?
- Take your reactions seriously, do not dismiss them, and notice what effect they have on you and others around you. Seek someone to talk to who is professionally qualified. If your reactions are making you miserable it is time to get help.
- Be gentle to yourself. It can feel shameful to experience overwhelm like this, particularly at work. This is natural and the shame will dissipate when you share your experiences with someone who can listen to you and understand.
- Ask for what you need: Take your health and future happiness seriously - if you need time off work to allow you to address this, talk to your employer and GP.
- Get to know yourself. Notice how you sleep, what you eat, and how different activities, food and drinks make you feel. If you can manage a mindfulness practice, however short, this is likely to help.
- Recognise your strengths and things you enjoy in life. If something bad has happened to you in the past, that has hurt you, it is also something you have had the strength to survive. And spend your time doing things you enjoy.
- Express yourself in whatever form comes naturally to you, or try something new: writing, drawing, dancing, cooking, gardening, pottery, meditation, etc.
- Trauma Tapping. This is best started with someone else but it is easy to do at home, following the video on www.selfhelpfortrauma.org - practicing this technique regularly is a great way to calm down and may help you to surface old memories safely.
- Get plenty of hugs. Hug when you can: we are mammals, so we need this contact to feel safe and comfortable in ourselves.
How will therapy help?
Safety, containment, and strategies are key when you are feeling overwhelmed. A therapist can provide a neutral, contained space for you to explore your experiences and feelings, in a gradual and safe way, so that you can start to make sense of them.
Alongside this, they can help you to develop strategies to manage your present-day fears, support you in everyday living, help you recover your strengths and rebuild your sense of self and agency.
You will know when therapy starts working when life starts to get easier - triggers start to lose their power, and you are able to regain perspective and respond from an adult position rather than being switched into a younger place.
And the fear starts to recede, and you are more able to manage your fears, rather than them controlling you. Also, life may feel more spacious, and you have choice once again as to how you react and respond to events.
There are a whole host of local charities offering low cost therapy, some of which will be online, and others still face to face, and if someone falls into their criteria this may be a possibility.
Larger employers may have EAP schemes which provide short term therapy. Also, frontline staff in the NHS and caring professions should be able to access free therapy through organisations such as Frontline 19.
It can be easier to pay for therapy and you can search through online directories such as those hosted by UKCP, BACP, Counselling Directory, Welldoing.org, and Psychology Today. Whilst some therapists are full, spaces appear all the time, and you will be able to find someone that you can work with.
Do get help if you are feeling overwhelmed, as good therapy really can make a difference, and you can return to ‘being yourself’ once more. These are difficult circumstances we are in, and we all need all the resources at our disposal.