In most crisis situations, the first people on site are professionals who have been trained to respond calmly to chaotic and unpredictable situations. Law enforcement, firefighters, and emergency medical workers are accustomed to handling life-threatening events, but the outbreak of the coronavirus has forced us to reconsider our definition of these first responders and essential workers.
Today, we are asking grocery store workers, bus drivers, mail carriers, restaurant workers, janitors, and many other professionals to take on an incredible amount of risk to their health as a means of keeping our country operational while we observe social distancing. These sacrifices come with additional mental, physical, and emotional tolls, so how can essential workers acknowledge the trauma they’re experiencing while taking steps to maintain their mental health in a stressful situation?
With expert advice from Jefferson Center trauma clinicians, Jamie Schlichenmayer and Joel Smith, here’s how trauma and anxiety can impact a person, as well as what you can do to manage these challenges if you’re an essential worker during COVID-19.
Direct and Vicarious Trauma
According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event.” Schlichenmayer and Smith note that there are two different kinds of trauma: direct and vicarious.
Direct Trauma: this is the result of direct exposure to a disturbing event like a shooting, accident, or a natural disaster.
Vicarious Trauma: this is is an ongoing process of change over time that results from witnessing or hearing about other people’s suffering and needs.
“What’s unique about this current pandemic is that it’s a twofold effect,” said Schlichenmayer. “People’s lives have been so significantly changed that they are experiencing direct trauma and the interconnectivity of our lives (thanks to social media) means we are also seeing the overwhelming effect this is having across the globe, leading to vicarious trauma. And just like trauma, the pandemic is having a different impact on different people based on their personalities, previous life experiences, and work settings. For those who have suddenly found themselves on the frontlines of the coronavirus, this can be especially stressful.”
1. Acknowledge Your Experience
It can be difficult to feel like your experience or emotions are valid at a time when everyone is suffering to some degree as a result of the same event. However, this is a crucial first step to managing trauma and anxiety, especially for essential workers. People who have been asked to continue coming to their jobs every day can experience additional stress related to increased workloads, intense interactions, the pressure to maintain high standards, separation from their families, and fears about the increased risk of infection. This can result in tension between your personal and professional needs.
Another complicated component for many people who have suddenly been deemed ‘essential’ is the fact their household income may have shrunk significantly due to mass layoffs. The pandemic has forced roughly 16 million Americans to file for unemployment benefits which means that the essential workers who have retained their jobs feel increased pressure to keep going to work.
Many of these workers are also concerned about hazardous working conditions, health insurance benefits, and a lack of paid sick leave that would protect them in the event that they do contract the virus. It’s important to recognize that any one of these factors would be cause for concern even under the best of circumstances, so juggling that many challenges and uncertainties during a pandemic is a recipe for burnout. Taking the time to acknowledge your experience is essential to maintaining your mental health.
2. Identify the Symptoms
There are many telltale signs of trauma, however, given the current circumstances, Smith says it can be difficult to separate what changes are the result of lifestyle alterations dictated by social distancing and which are signs of trauma. In direct and vicarious cases, reactions can often be delayed and changes to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be more subtle or discrete. Some reactions to traumatic events can include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in eating habits
- Increased drinking or smoking
- Difficulty concentrating
- Social withdrawal
- Feelings of depression or anxiety
- Increased irritability or anger
- Intrusive thoughts
- Increased sensitivity
“One easy way to identify what could be trauma and what could be a lifestyle change is to identify whether the behavior is helpful to you or not,” said Schlichenmayer. “For example, if you’re finding yourself cooking at home more when you used to eat out frequently, that’s likely beneficial to your health since you’re not exposing yourself to other people who might be carrying the virus. However, if you’re used to eating a fairly balanced diet and you’ve noticed that all you want to eat is comfort food, you might be exhibiting symptoms of trauma.”
3. Foster Healthy Relationships
During difficult times, people are prone to experiencing relationship problems like marital discord, expecting the worst of others, and the loss of friends. Social distancing and shelter-in-place orders only compound these factors, making it harder to maintain your relationships.
To make sure your relationships stay as healthy as possible for the duration of the pandemic, Smith suggests taking time apart from the people you live with. “This will provide you with some much needed time to address your own needs and sort out complicated thoughts or feelings,” he said. “Additionally, taking some time away will help you spend more quality, meaningful times with your loved ones when you are together.”
4. Find Support Networks
One effective way to manage trauma is to find a support network of others who have had similar experiences. Luckily, in the case of COVID-19, everyone is living through the same event and most people will be able to relate to your concerns. Although it can be difficult to feel like you have a close support network when everyone is sheltering in place, there are still plenty of ways to interact with your community.
This can mean virtual game nights, phone calls with friends, or even writing letters. If you are religious or spiritual, this can also be a time where you might begin to question your faith or feel an increase in cynicism. Participating in a virtual service or joining a Bible study group can help you regain that sense of connection to a community as well as your faith.
5. Focus On Your Own Needs
Essential workers are more exposed to the effects of the pandemic in many ways. In the case of vicarious trauma, these people might be prone to taking on the emotional suffering of those around them after encountering grief, loss, and hardship on a daily basis. It can be easy to carry those heavy emotions with you from your work life into your home life but you should make time to address your own needs.
One of the most basic needs Smith stresses is the importance of getting quality sleep. “Sleep relates to everything we do. It affects our mood and the way our bodies function and it’s essential to keeping our immune system healthy.” Schlichenmayer added the importance of staying active. “Physical symptoms often respond really well to physical movement.”
Other ways to meet your physical needs include getting regular exercise, healthy eating, limiting alcohol and smoking, and drinking plenty of water. When it comes to addressing your mental and emotional needs, self-care routines can help ground you and reconnect your body to your mind.
If you’re feeling anxious, stressed, or worried, try some of these self-care activities:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Talk to your peers
- Write in a journal
- Practice visualization
- Watch a movie
- Read a book
- Listen to music
- Play an instrument
Know When to Seek Professional Help
Smith says the most important thing to remember is that “our anxiety is in us, but is not us.”
There are plenty of grounding techniques and skills available to people struggling with trauma and anxiety, but when those symptoms become unmanageable, it’s time to seek out help.
Trauma is a tricky subject because its effects can last for years after the initial event. The pandemic is an ongoing situation that is changing day by day and many mental health experts agree that the long-term effects on workers’ psyche could be significant in the months and years ahead.
If you’re an essential worker and you’re struggling to prioritize your mental health during this time, Jefferson Center is here for you. To learn more about our telehealth services or if you have any questions, contact us today. Additionally, you can hear more of Smith and Schlichenmayer’s thoughts on this subject by watching the Essential Workers webinar here.
If you are in a crisis, please call us at 303-425-0300 or by calling the crisis line at 844-493-8255. The 24/7 crisis walk-in center and withdrawal management program is open at 4643 Wadsworth Blvd, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033.