Exploring the psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has dipped into both my intellectual and empathic reservoirs. It has challenged me to ponder upon my professional and personal journey with trauma. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that the majority of global society has experienced at least one major trauma in their lives. That is the part of your being that I hope gets to read this – the part of your being that is able to connect with these words from a human perspective. Secondly, it is important to acknowledge the trauma that has been caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome corona virus.
There isn’t a need to delve upon the physiological impact of contracting the virus. That has been discussed, and information has been widely disseminated. What seems to be the quieter conversation is the psychological impact of living (or dying) through the pandemic. Granted, our journeys will all be different, and how can they not be? There are people who have experienced complex trauma. There are people who have experienced trauma. There are people who have not experienced trauma. There are people who don’t know.
Reflecting on some of the conversations that have been shared with survivors of trauma, I am burdened, intrigued, and empowered. There is something about the corona virus and the subsequent lockdowns and restrictions that are akin to a political war. As we sit in our homes, we are reminded that our homes are no longer just homes. They are both our prisons and our places of refuge. They are now the structures that have been given the mandate to keep us safe from this plague. We sit in our homes, with the illusion of safety. But, are we really safe? What are we even staying safe from? There are no gun shots to remind us that there is a threat to humanity. There are no screams of fear and terror to be heard, but the dread is there. This equation does not balance. Have our autonomic responses been tampered with? Fight, flight, or freeze, right? What options do we really have? We are frozen, imprisoned by an invisible war that attacks us – not through bullets or grenades or machetes, but through contaminated respiratory droplets. Our quarantine partners, friends and family, those who we stay at home with may be the very people who could cause us the most harm, and vice versa. Our family systems have been threatened and our safety nets have been broken.
So as the calendar dates change every 24 hours, to many of us, they freeze in this war. In this intrapsychic conflict, we can’t fight, we can’t flee, so we freeze. Our limbic systems work in overdrive in response to this imminent threat, this ongoing trauma that is working precariously in our unconscious. Many are in survival mode, as the hypothalamus codes what it can. If you have experienced trauma in the past, your trauma response patterns may be recalibrating. This is why we are all responding differently. This is why even within ourselves we may not have the ability to contain our emotions consistently for a long period of time. We are unpredictable even to ourselves…and why not? The world’s predictability has been reframed into statistics of infection, death and recovery [repeat].
Institutions are closed and the streets are deserted. The roar of industry is a distant whisper. As we acknowledge both the collective, and individual trauma that this virus has inflicted, we begin the journey of healing. For the most part, we are uncertain of what it will look or feel like. There are so many dynamics and projections, that it is difficult to know what stage of trauma you are fighting with, fleeing from, or freezing in. It is a journey of knowing that the outside world may eventually reflect some semblance of “business as usual”, but we as human beings are forever changed.
For those of you who have embarked on a battle against complex trauma before COVID-19, I salute you. I salute you for existing and functioning in a traumatic space where you didn’t have the “comfort” of the entire world experiencing it with you. I salute you for receiving empathy, when even your words were never enough to express the fear, and the loss, and the grief. There are many whose trauma has been triggered and there are flashbacks, nightmares, and memories resurfacing of the wars and crimes against humanity, the outbreak of Ebola, the spread and stigma of HIV, the fight against hunger…… To some, this pandemic has a texture of normalcy. To some, there are wounds that have been re-infected. To some, their privilege will see them through.
There is something about working therapeutically with trauma that has been enlightening. Some of my recent existential moments have been inspired by the narratives of the precious and resilient people who have been violated by the injustices of the society that we all live in. I dedicate these words to those people. May their lives remain powerful enough to force us to stay human as we continue down the yellow brick road…
Written by Amina Mwaikambo