Lifelines: How The Stress Of COVID-19 Can Be Re-Traumatizing For Trauma Survivors | New Hampshire Public Radio

Lifelines: How The Stress Of COVID-19 Can Be Re-Traumatizing For Trauma Survivors

May 5, 2020

Linda Douglas giving a trauma training at Concord High School.
Credit The Concord Monitor

All this week, as part of our series Lifelines, NHPR is looking at something that even in normal times, isn't easy to talk about -  trauma.

Linda Douglas is the trauma specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She’s been working with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in New Hampshire since 2005, and she regularly runs trainings on trauma for institutions across the state.

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She says the added stress of life under COVID-19 can remind survivors of traumatic experiences in their past.

Biello: So I want to ask you about how the COVID-19 crisis can be retraumatizing for those who've experienced trauma in their lives. But I want to get you to define that first. What exactly is retraumatization?

Douglas: It's when someone is reminded of trauma that they've experienced in the past and their body responds as if that same trauma is happening all over again. It's more of a trauma reminder than it is a retraumatization. It may feel like they're being retraumatized, but it's more like the body is being reminded of what it felt like before.

Biello: Is that synonymous, you think, with the word triggering?

Linda Douglas presents on trauma at Concord High School.
Credit The Concord Monitor

Douglas: Somewhat, yes. 

Biello: Somewhat. What might be the essential difference between those two?

Douglas: It's almost like to me triggering is like a short term. It's more acute. Where with what we're going through right now, it's a more sustained period where a person could be feeling like they no longer have any control over the situation. So there's this sense, and I've talked to a number of advocates across the country the past week on various calls, and the one thing that is common for everybody is this... just anxiety, because we don't know when it's going to end. And that loss of control and being unable to know when it's going to end can be a trigger, but it's with us every single day until... you know, we just don't know. And that feels like loss of control. And loss of control is what contributes to a person having sustained trauma.

Biello: And in what other ways are survivors of trauma impacted by this crisis in ways that those who have not been traumatized might not be?

Douglas: I think some people may be able to identify with the fact that trauma survivors spend a lot of time managing the depression, the post-traumatic stress, the anxiety by doing things that we're no longer able to do. May it be going out and visiting with friends... you know, even just going shopping.

Linda Douglas giving a training on trauma at Concord High School.
Credit The Concord Monitor

Biello: Or hitting the gym. 

Douglas: Hitting the gym is a big one. You know, and being unable to do that. And so people may be turning to other things that you do when you're in isolation. People may be drinking alcohol more. They may be eating and snacking more because they don't have the usual outlets that they have. And certain times of day could be really difficult for them if they're able to, like I'm doing, working from home, and then all of a sudden in the evening, it gets a little bit tougher. And so, it's about recognizing that isolation can impact people in different ways. If you're living with someone who is abusive to you, the isolation doesn't cause the abuse. What it does is it provides more opportunity, so you've got more anxiety around that and not being able to get away and not being able to get help and maybe not being able to be as protective of your children, to someone who lives alone and feels isolated and unable to reach out and may have had times in their past where they felt abandoned and struggled with being alone and having people unavailable to them. So it doesn't matter whether you're living with other people or you're living alone, there are ways that you can be reminded or be living in trauma in the present.

Biello: So for those who are feeling out of control right now, is there anything that they can do, maybe something even very small, to gain back some of that sense of control?

Douglas: One of the things that I've been loving lately is when I've been going out on my walks, is I've been seeing more families walking out there together. And I think just getting out of the house to the best of the ability so that everybody can feel like they're not as hemmed in, so that they can all breathe, so that they can find ways to enjoy each other. I think it's also very important for parents to reach out to those people that they know are in the same boat as they are, that the elderly who are living alone, that they find some way to reach out to family members. Just check in with each other. I think that's the most important thing that we can do right now is to just check in with each other now and then, you know, how are you doing? Is there anything that can help you with? And letting the people know that, you