September 29, 2021

COVID Trauma is Real—& we’re All Struggling with It.

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I know you might be thinking, “Oh goodie, another article about how COVID-19 has affected us.”

And you would be right.

I’m here to share how Covid has and still is causing trauma in our everyday lives, and it has nothing to do with being sick from or knowing someone who lost their life to the evolving virus.

Everyone has been profoundly affected by the pandemic, whether we are an extrovert who was going nuts during quarantine, or just someone who really struggles to adapt in life on any given day. Sick or healthy, believers or fake newsies, red or blue, rich or poor—Covid has changed our lives and how we live them.

We all have our stories, which I hope we continue to share. This is mine.

As an educator, it’s my job to know the signs of trauma and understand how it affects a student’s ability to learn and develop. We call this “trauma-informed practice.” Further, as a high school counselor, it’s a professional responsibility to be able to explain how trauma effects the brain to my students when their trauma responses begin to impact their ability to be successful in school. One of the things I appreciate most about my students is their age—their hunger to know more about themselves and the developing awareness about how their behaviors affect their lives.

We’ve all heard of the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction, right? The cheat notes on brain chemistry when you “flip your lid” are basically that your amygdala (emotional regulator) craps out, your brain fills up with cortisol (your “fire alarm” hormone), and you respond accordingly. For most of us, that looks like freaking out and melting down.

For people who have experienced repeated trauma over time, whether it’s from repeated incidents of abuse or multiple adverse experiences, their brain starts to change. Simply put, “trauma grooves” are created in the brain, much like the grooves on a vinyl record. So when something triggers a reaction in someone with a trauma history, it’s like a needle dropping onto the groove in your brain. The brain doesn’t filter out unreasonable or disproportionate responses—it just starts playing the hits. I have read articles and books, gone to workshops, and had an infinite number of conversations with people about it.

But until recently, I never truly appreciated just how trauma responses work.

As I mentioned, I am a high school counselor, which is important for context. For 18 months (and counting) public educators have been jerked around with changing rules due to Covid, blamed for enforcing mask mandates, and dumped on by administrators, who truly have no other option. At the high school level, much of the jerking around was related to graduation requirements. We also dealt with the issue of moving to distance learning, as most schools did, which included but weren’t limited to attendance, grading practice, inequities with internet access, and levels of support available at home.

Every time a new level of government got involved, the rules would change—and that regularly went up and down the ladder from local to federal. There were contract negotiations and memorandums of understanding to make sure the district and the teachers’ union were on the same page as to what “safety” meant. As a department head, this meant I needed to have a deeper understanding of…well, all of it, in order to take information from meetings back to our department.

We, quite literally, solved new problems every day. Things we didn’t see coming, things we could never imagine would be a problem, random ripple effects of decisions that we couldn’t have anticipated; I could go on and on, but you get it, right? I was working in a world where I couldn’t count on anything being true or real, and meanwhile, I was losing credibility with families because I kept having to change student graduation plans.

Another helpful piece of context to note is that I’m a planner. My husband will tell you, I have lists for everything. I like to know what’s going to happen, and I take comfort from rhythm and routine. That’s probably why I like my job so much—there is a rhythm and cycle to it all, with the opportunity to always implement better techniques and strategies the next year.

With a “real” summer vacation in 2021, I found myself in Phoenix, celebrating my mom’s birthday and hanging out with my parents. Truthfully, I hate traveling. I hate airports and can’t stand airplanes. It’s not because I fear the plane crashing, but because I don’t need that many people breathing the same air and being in my personal space.

Plus, I hate being away from home—it’s my happy place. I am one of those blessed people who would choose home over any destination in the world. And my husband (who ran out of tolerance for travel long ago) happily stays home with the dogs when I make the rare trip off the compound. The older I get, the lower my tolerance gets with air travel. But my love for my family is stronger than my hatred for flying. And while visiting my parents, and the desert, is always lovely, I missed my family and was eager to get home.

Which is why I flipped my lid when I opened my email to check in and print my boarding pass, only to find an email saying “We’re sorry, your flight was canceled.”

And that’s when the record-player needle dropped into a trauma groove in my brain—one I never even realized was there. My amygdala short-circuited, my brain filled up with cortisol, and I freaked out. Not just because I’m a planner, and this wasn’t the plan. Maybe a little bit because there was no other flight that day or the next back to the small commuter airport I left from, where my car was parked. But mostly because to get home, I had a two-hour layover in Portland before landing in Seattle. This meant my husband would have to come get me since my car was at the airport closer to where we live.

So yeah, the complicated travel arrangements were a huge contributing factor to my freak out, because I had planned it all out to be simple. To be tolerable for my distaste of travel. And now the universe had tossed a grenade into my plan, leaving all the intentional structuring and preparing in shambles.

After sorting the details, I went outside to take emotional stock of my meltdown, and remind myself that everything was fine. I would get to hang out with my parents a bit longer and eventually, I would get back home…after a lot of faffing around with my husband picking me up from one airport, then dropping me off at another, but still. In real life, everything was fine. So why was my reaction so over the top, so not fine?

And then it hit me: trauma reactions. Of course.

Something I had planned on, and mapped out in my brain to be manageable, fell apart. And it triggered my brain into the same trauma response it had been playing out for the last 18 months when something I had counted on suddenly changed. I had been enjoying my summer vacation without disrupting work thoughts or work-related anxiety, my brain chemistry had finally mellowed out to a more acceptable baseline, and life was just ducky. But all it took was one silly canceled flight, and I was right back in the war trenches, armed for battle and ready to attack.

Luckily, I was able to recognize my meltdown for what it was before I took another ride on the cortisol rollercoaster. And I was able to turn things around before it ruined the extra time with my parents. But it did make me think about the collateral damage Covid has done to me—and to society.

We have all become traumatized by this pandemic in one way or another, maybe even in ways we don’t know about yet. It made me realize that we all need to check our big reactions when we have them, because our brains and our bodies are tired of being in fight, flight, or freeze mode all of the time. We are exhausted from adapting to the changes this pandemic is creating each day, and right now there really isn’t an end in sight.

As I said in the beginning, I hope we can continue to share our stories. In sharing, we validate that the struggle for sanity in a Covid world is hard work.


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