April 16, 2020

We have Never Done this Before: 5 Trauma Responses in the Time of Coronavirus.

Check out Elephant’s Continually-updating Coronavirus Diary. ~ Waylon


The hoarding judgments on my Facebook feed seem to have finally died down.

Was it just me, or did it seem like every other post was someone ranting about how disrespectful it was for people to buy countless rolls of toilet paper? The initial shock of how people were dealing with the disclosure of the virus and the potential quarantine sent people into pure survival mode.

So, when I first started seeing social media posts shaming people for how they chose to survive, I would quickly run my finger to the next post because I didn’t want to get caught up in the stories. Doing that would have triggered my own fear and anxiety, which would then start to feed my own survival mechanisms.

But as the weeks came and the shelter in place orders became a reality, there were more and more stories coming through my feed. Honestly, it wouldn’t have hit me so hard if the stories came from somewhere else. But my social media world is 90 percent coworkers, activists, organizers, social workers, and healers. Their reaction hit home harder because I expected more. Like, wasn’t this a perfect time to put theory to practice? Could we not use this as an opportunity to test and enact our community practices on how to support our communities experiencing trauma in real-time?

As I reached out to my friends to vent, I realized I wasn’t the only one feeling like the judgment of “hoarding” was too much for such a level of crisis. Then I thought to myself, “Wait, we haven’t done this before so whatever and however people are doing this COVID-19 response and quarantine is okay!”

It’s not like we have a folder in our head that says “Quarantine” that outlines exactly what to buy and do. What we do have is a folder called “Trauma” that triggers all the stories inside of us that tell us how to survive any perceived or real threat. What we also have is a folder called “Doomsday” where apocalyptic movies and books show us what we should be doing. This folder tells us to run to stores; trample each other; and get water, toilet paper, canned food, flashlights. And that’s what people did—some without realizing it. They showed up in their trauma response movie premier status and activated themselves.

In addition, how much a person shows up in survival and trauma is also based on their position and political landscape in the world and on what is happening at the moment that they feel they need to survive, fix, or protect themselves.

I can’t answer specifically why people “hoarded” toilet paper, but after talking to my friends and peers and being in the field of trauma and gender-based violence for 20 years, I can share five reasons why people may have:

1. Poverty

If you have lived in poverty before—no running water, went without food, didn’t have toilet paper, were homeless—then a crisis like this will trigger those traumas and fears and you will go out and get all the things to make sure that you never go back to not having or to poverty again. For those of us who still need to work no matter what is happening in the world, we literally can’t afford to stop.

Poverty is a lived experience. Crisis is a lived experience. This global pandemic is both a personal and collective crisis that we are all experiencing simultaneously.

2. Sexual Assault and Abuse

For survivors of any form of sexual assault, abuse, this is not a safe time—especially if you’re at home with a partner or a family member who is not safe, emotionally, mentally, physically, or spiritually. Fear of being alone and being vulnerable to prey and isolation can trigger memories that have been buried deep within our psyche.

During this quarantine, you may be remembering the anniversary of when something happened, and your body and mind may be reacting. You may start to feel like it was your fault, or you deserved it. You may be thinking that now that you’re in one place your perpetrator may find you and there is nowhere to run to.

If you’re sheltering in place with a partner, intimacy may be triggering. If you’re sheltering in place alone, the lack of intimacy might be triggering. Without anywhere to go, we are forced to sit with it all, and the weight of it all will have us doing whatever to survive.

3. Scarcity

There are so many unanswered questions at this time. What does this mean? How long is this going to last? I have my family at home now 24 hours a day, what do I do? Will my bills go up? How will I get more food? Supplies? I have heard from many that they are the only ones in their family who made it out and are not living paycheck to paycheck. Does this mean that they will now have to take care of their whole family if people lose their jobs?

With all these questions, scarcity and deficit start to settle in the body and mind—and when you least expect it, you are the one with the five packs of toilet paper in your cart.

4. Anxiety/Fear

Being on an emotional rollercoaster after watching the news, hearing conflicting stories, myths, and conspiracy theories—and still not knowing exactly what’s going on—will have us all going mad. Emotional eating, depression, constant sleeping, insomnia, not taking a bath, and running back to exes are some of the things you may be doing.

While others are in joy and celebration while holding grief and death, managing stress and anxiety with addiction—and yes, even hoarding. We are doing all the things that make us feel safe and connected to home and family.

5.  Grief, Death, and Loss

People are experiencing death and loss in different ways. And there are many ways that people are grieving. From the loss of connection to family, friends, and community to loss of intimacy, the loss of sacred space to mourn people who are dying—we are experiencing some of our hardest times.

Relationships are harder to hold together because each person is dealing with this differently; people are breaking up and others are finding comfort in each other’s arms even if for the moment. So many are losing their sense of self, identity, and power. Because all of this happened so fast, the stages of grief do not even apply. Trauma responses do not follow stages; they are automatic and unpredictable. Their sole responsibility in a time like this is to protect you even if it feels/looks harmful or doesn’t make sense.

So, if you find yourself judging yourself or others please bring some compassion right now. No matter what language or how many times you say quarantine, it doesn’t make a difference. The word quarantine doesn’t turn on an algorithm in people’s brains that says, buy this or that, be this or that, or act like this or that. Quarantine means so many things in so many different languages, and there are so many different trauma responses as there are people on this earth experiencing crises.

You may not have any of the stories I shared above, but I know you hoarded anyway. You hoarded something. Maybe it was money. Maybe it was love. You are surviving this somehow. You are responding in some way.

Full disclosure moment: while people were buying toilet paper, I was buying all my beauty supplies. I got everything hair and weave extension-related, all the DIY acrylic and gel nails, bath time stuff, and all the snacks I could get my hands on.

Check-in: what did you do or buy that you don’t want to tell anyone? Can you be okay with all the contradictions you and people are being and living right now? And why are we focusing on toilet paper and people hoarding instead of being mad at how the government has been hoarding power and managing this crisis?

Life is still happening. It didn’t stop because we are in quarantine. We still need to pay bills and people are still going to work. If people were dealing with sexual abuse or domestic violence before, it may still be happening now and even increased. If you had trauma responses pre-coronavirus that you were managing mind, body, and spirit, they are probably more heightened now and potentially running how you’re surviving. If you had PTSD, fear, shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression before, it’s probable that they may have taken over your life now.

Life hasn’t stopped and actually, the coronavirus has exasperated of all it. On top of that, we also have to think about what life is going to look like post-coronavirus because its impact is creating trauma that we will also develop other responses and survival skills for—impacting us all for years to come.

So yes, I understand why my social media was bombarded with judgemental “hoarding” toilet paper stories; we were all in our trauma response as well. These past few weeks and months have been about survival of the fittest and our animal instincts are kicking in full gear to survive the unknown in as much as we know.

We are hoarding. We are emotionally eating, and we are going to the parks anyway. What safety means to you doesn’t mean the same to me or others. What you need to hoard is not what I need to hoard. Everyone is doing this the best way they know how. You are doing the best you can. Remember we have never done this before. You are managing this the best way you know how.

Stay safe, whatever that means to you. See you on the other side because we have everything—all the experiences and all the survival mechanisms—we need to make it.

We may not have ever done this before, but we have survived something before.





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