There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has triggered new levels of stress. Thanks to work-from-home mandates, school schedule disruptions, and the seemingly endless discovery of new variants, most of us have been forced to adapt to a way of life in which nothing is certain. And that’s aside from the casualties — as of this writing, just shy of 940,000 in the U.S. — and the trauma endured by their loved ones.
Nadine Burke Harris, California’s surgeon general during the pandemic, recently called it “probably the greatest collective trauma of our generation.” But what will be the aftermath of this trauma? While it’s virtually impossible to know how the pandemic might affect us in the future — the research on how this long-term stress is currently affecting us is just underway — we can turn to the experts for clues of what’s to come.
Those who are most vulnerable were also hit hardest by COVID-19. While a newly-appointed Harris expected to address toxic stress in California’s low-income communities, she found that COVID-19 exacerbated inequality and made it even more difficult for those trying to make ends meet.
People who couldn’t afford private child care, for instance, were often at a disadvantage in the face of school shutdowns and child care closures. For families living in already cramped quarters, space became even more limited when they were forced to work from home. And those working low-wage jobs — in hospitality, for instance — were most vulnerable to infection.
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There are also troubling statistics on the rise of domestic violence during the pandemic: Women with the greatest financial anxiety were the most likely to report domestic abuse, and this abuse sometimes led to deaths. According to Ohio domestic violence shelters, the state has seen a 62 percent increase in domestic violence fatalities since 2020.
On top of all these consequences, the levels of fear of infection (or of the vaccine itself) have soared. Those with preexisting anxiety, as well as those concerned about the wellbeing of vulnerable friends and family, were at particularly high risk for pandemic-related fears, according to new research in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.
Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and author of the bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score, stresses that trauma isn’t a thing of the past; it’s a living experience we grapple with in daily life. Therefore, the “collective trauma” brought about by the pandemic is likely to have a long-lasting impact.
Mind and Body
One of the earliest researchers in the field of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, van der Kolk focuses on the ways the body holds trauma and the ways people experiencing PTSD can reconnect with their bodies to help heal it. Those who have confronted trauma manifest it physically, he says, often in the form of sweating, panicking, choking up or quickly ending a subject of conversation.
Yet trauma doesn’t just affect our bodies or our memories. It also influences how we act in the world. Van der Kolk explains that trauma is a physiological response to fear and prevents us from being fully engaged in the present. Those affected, in other words, are at a particular disadvantage because they — rather than realizing their own agency to change a situation — often feel helpless.
However, van der Kolk adds, it’s important not to think of trauma as a blanket statement. Discord and strife are normal human experiences; trauma is more often the result when a person is left without a way out of those experiences. “[Trauma] leaves you hopeless, vulnerable, horrified, unprotected. It changes your perception of the world as a safe place, and of you as an active agent,” he says.
Those experiencing this may also struggle to empathize or become close with others. Van der Kolk, however, believes that difficult events, when shared, can have an unexpected effect: They can bring people together. “I see more collective healing than collective trauma,” he says.