TRAUMAVERSARIES AND THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
by Anna Kreiner
For those of us in Michigan, the next few weeks will be filled with anniversaries. The first wave of the pandemic in Michigan started this time last year and ushered in a whole new slew of emotions, stressors and fears. I’ve seen a lot of people already posting on social media about their last normal day at work, or the last day their kiddos had in-person classes. On the flip side, many folks would rather ignore this one year mark. All of this is perfectly okay. Some folks are having very real trauma responses to these one-year anniversaries. Some aren’t. This is also okay. However you are feeling is okay. There is no playbook for a pandemic. And especially not a pandemic anniversary.
When it comes to our mental health, physical health, and socioeconomic circumstances, we’ve all felt the impact of the pandemic differently. A lot of this depends on the social identities we hold, the region we live in, and/or how close the COVID-19 infections have come to us and our loved ones. This pandemic has thoroughly rocked the foundation of our communities. All on top of the political turmoil, collective loss, infrastructure failure, and white supremacist systemic violence that this past year has brought to many aspects of our society. A word you may hear to refer to the one-year mark of these intertwined traumas, is “traumaversary.”
What is a traumaversary?
The term “traumaversary” was coined in the mental health community by folks experiencing PTSD and trauma. It is a term used to describe the one-year mark of a negative life-altering event, and the wide range of emotions that comes with these anniversaries. Sometimes it’s used to refer to a specific day, but they can also be entire seasons/weeks/months/spans of time where something life-altering occurred. After surviving a traumatic event, it’s common to experience any range of emotions from joy/relief that we survived, to depression/grief. Even all of this at the same time.
It’s important to know that anyone can have a traumaversary, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the result of something “big.” We all experience stressful events differently, so what may be considered traumatic for one person, may not be for someone else. This term is becoming much more widespread now with the array of anxiety/depression that the pandemic has dragged out for a lot of people. Whether you choose to use the word “traumaversary” is up to you. Some might use it as a way to validate the tumultuousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. Others might not. But regardless, it can be helpful to learn why our brains react certain ways to traumatic stress, even if you don’t see the pandemic as a concrete “trauma.”
A crash-course in post-traumatic stress/brains that have experienced trauma:
The human brain is incredibly clever. When our minds and bodies experience something traumatic, our bodies immediately prioritize surviving in the now, while the heavy-duty processing is saved for later. In order to do that, our bodies enact the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. This is fueled by adrenaline. Once our adrenaline has carried us to safety and has time to wind down, we begin processing the event that just occurred. It is normal to experience post traumatic stress symptoms for the immediate weeks after a traumatic occurrence/prolonged series of events. Including but not limited to:
– temporary depression
– feelings of grief
– night terrors/ sleep disturbances
– appetite changes
These mechanisms are our mind’s way of protecting us from harm while integrating the event into how we experience the world. These symptoms are also the brain’s way of making sure that we don’t endanger ourselves again. Many of these symptoms (such as decreased appetite, hypervigilance, panic, insomnia, and night terrors) are also a result of the increase in adrenaline/stress hormones that are required to maintain this survival mode. These symptoms are normal for a period of time, but if they last for longer than 6 months that’s when it starts veering into more chronic PTSD territory.
This is where the COVID-19 pandemic anniversary can come in.
We’ve all been in lockdown for over a year now, living in a world where we have to think 15 steps ahead just to survive going to the grocery store. And when it comes to bringing new life into the world, parenting during a pandemic is not for the faint of heart. While the COVID-19 virus is still a threat to our health and safety, we are in a much different situation than we were last year. We know more about the virus, testing is available to the public, we have enough PPE for the most part, and many members of our community are being vaccinated daily. But that still doesn’t negate the initial shock of the first wave of the pandemic. Of course, the situation is still dire, but we’ve had a year to adjust, process the uncertainty, and visualize our futures. For this reason, especially with the arrival of spring weather, many people have experienced post traumatic stress symptoms as their brains are thrown back into that first month of the pandemic. This can be even more so if you have a history of trauma. There is nothing wrong with you, it’s just your brain trying to make sure you survive.
After traumatic events our brains automatically store cues from these experiences in our memories for later. That way, if we encounter them again in the future, we will be prepared to enact the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response to propel ourselves out of danger. These cues (or triggers, to use their proper term) can include more obvious triggers such as:
– Objects – Events in academic calendars
– Sounds/ loud noises – Articles of clothing
– Smells – Specific dates
– Flavors – Physical touch
– Holidays – Songs that were popular/ playing at the time
But they can also include more subtle triggers, such as:
– The amount of daylight – Not feeling emotionally safe
– Seasons of the year – Feelings of uncertainty
– Weather – Situations that mirror the past trauma
– Foods that were in season – Emotions that were felt at the time
– Not feeling physically safe – Bright/ dim lighting
Triggers are one of many mechanisms our brain uses to keep us safe.
And they often aren’t something we do consciously. For some of us, when we encounter these triggers, our brain automatically switches into survival mode (e.g. panic attacks to give us energy to fight/flee, flashbacks to warn us, etc..). But sometimes this can happen even if we’re not necessarily in danger. Our brain’s sole purpose is to keep us alive, so it operates by the “better to be safe than sorry” method. It would rather react in a big way to a cue/trigger like the weather changing, than under-react to a potentially dangerous situation and put you in harm’s way. It’s a clever mechanism, but sometimes it’s just a little misplaced. A big portion of recovering from trauma is not only regaining our sense of emotional and physical safety, but also rewiring our brains to not automatically sound the alarm when we encounter triggers that don’t necessarily indicate danger. Especially when they result in full-blown PTSD, or inhibit our ability to form relationships/ function in daily life. If you experienced any post-traumatic stress symptoms early in the pandemic, it’s possible they could come back as we pass our one-year mark.
Since anniversaries of traumatic incidents are never easy, and everyone will experience this month differently, I have made a list of practical tips from personal experience that can help along the way.
Practical tips for making traumaversaries a little easier:
1. It’s okay to feel. This is your reminder to let yourself feel over these next few weeks, even if you don’t think your emotions and reactions “make sense” (which they do). This pandemic has dragged out virtually every emotion in the human experience and pushed it to its limits. To name a few:
– Anger – Hope
– Fear – Disgust
– Sadness – Uncertainty
– Depression – Exhaustion
– Anxiety – Tenderness
– Joy – Love
This last year has been traumatic for many. For others it hasn’t. A lot of this will depend on your personal threshold and past experiences. Give yourself the grace to feel whatever is true for you. Ignoring these emotions will just ensure that they pop up somewhere else down the line.
2. Make sure your basic needs are being met. Taking care of your mind and body’s most basic needs is crucial on any day of the year, but even more so on big anniversaries like this. Simple tasks like showering, eating, or brushing your teeth can feel like massive chores to a melancholy mind. But these small elements of routine can help with establishing normalcy and moving the body out of survival mode.
3. Plan, or don’t! If there’s a particular anniversary day coming up for you, sometimes planning out the day can help. It’s common for decision-making and clear thinking to become difficult, so planning your day will put more tasks on autopilot so that you don’t have to stress as much. A lot of people do the opposite by ignoring anniversary days altogether. This can be a good strategy, but exercise caution with this one. Check in with yourself to see what you really need. Sometimes ignoring big landmarks like this can just prolong the healing process by blocking things out. But in some instances, it can be a very important step in healing by de-escalating the importance of that day. Do it if it works for you, but practice self-honesty.
4. Take extra care of yourself. Self care looks pretty on instagram, but in reality it looks different for everyone. For some folks it involves a relaxing bath decorated with flower petals, and for others it looks like letting yourself sleep without an alarm or crying in your car after a rough day. However you take care of yourself, just remember that you have come so far in the last year. You have been surviving a pandemic. Let it out when you need to, but don’t forget to give yourself overwhelming amounts of credit.
5. Reach out to your support system. Isolation also increases PTS symptoms. Even more so when it’s accompanied by shame or “should” statements saying that you “should be over this by now” or you “should have done more today.” Healing is difficult as it is, so why make it more difficult? Text someone you trust, get some snuggles in with a fur-baby, go for a walk with your favorite family member, or ask your partner for some extra TLC. Do something to connect with someone that makes you feel safe before the day is up, even if it’s small. It won’t be a magic fix, but shame and isolation cannot survive in the face of love and understanding.
6. Create closure if you need it. Notice what emotions come up for you in the coming weeks. How do you feel? Do those emotions need to be released, or just given space to exist? Catharsis doesn’t need to be big, and it definitely doesn’t need to be pretty. Something as small as lighting a candle, listening to a calm playlist before bed, or burying a stone to represent your grief can give you the time/space to process. Acknowledging the hurt does not mean you have stopped healing. In fact, it is a vital part of healing.
7. Hibernation mode. There’s nothing wrong with just hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass. If sleeping or retreating to your cave is how you get through to the other side, then absolutely do it. Some people may want to do this but may not have the option because of work, family, or other obligations. If this sounds like you, make sure to carve time out in your day to burrow in your safe place.
8. Mark the passage of time. Traumaversaries are often much more intense than other days of the year. The part of the brain that reacts to trauma is not the best at telling time. So for people who experience triggers and flashbacks, our brains tend to freeze us in the time/place of the traumatic event. Just remember that this too shall pass. At some point these feelings, this day, week, month, or year will be over and you will be able to rest.
9. Grounding techniques. Your mental-health toolkit will be very helpful during this time. Your “toolkit” is any healthy grounding/self-care/coping mechanisms that you lean on when times get tough. Whether you’re just feeling a little off, or completely struggling to stay centered in the present. It’s okay if you need to take care of yourself more than usual right now.
10. Be kind to yourself. If you’re feeling low, don’t be so hard on yourself. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel unpleasant emotions, and it’s okay to miss a beat (or many). You’re a human who has been through a lot this year. Anniversaries of traumatic incidents are a lot to begin with, on top of the continuing pandemic. You’re allowed to not be okay. The dishes and monitoring of your little one’s screen time might need to be put on the back burner. Your well-being is worth it, and you deserve to process what this one-year mark means for you.
11. Ask for help if you need it. This one can be a doozy because it does require a certain amount of vulnerability. But it is vital. If you are struggling, please ask for help. Or even just reach out to someone enough that they can support you in seeking help. Create an emergency plan with your loved ones so that they know exactly how to support you when you’re in crisis. Do not hesitate to reach out to us for referrals to mental health professionals if you need to. And if you are currently in crisis, please call the crisis hotline at 800-273-8255.
Sometimes even when we try all of these tips it still doesn’t quite take the edge off of the traumaversary sting. If this seems to be the case for you, please remember that you are doing your best and that is more than enough for right now. You are getting through it. You are surviving a pandemic. That in itself is a monumental feat.