As a wife, mother, friend, daughter, business owner, employee or employer, you have felt the uncertainty, worry, anxiety and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lockdown and everything that has come with it. You have adjusted, made compromises, tried to keep a routine and stay positive.
Yet you feel traumatised. For many of us, COVID-19 and its repercussions have felt traumatic. Or is it stress?
The difference between stress and trauma
Psychologist Ilse de Beer says the distinction between trauma and stress is important to make as the ways in which each must be dealt with, as well as the recovery process, are very different.
“Experiencing a trauma can overwhelm or disable your normal coping mechanisms and can affect you long afterwards. In many ways, it can feel as though the experience hasn’t ended. Left unaddressed, it can continue to exert an influence the rest of your life, even leading to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” she says.
What is a trauma?
She describes a trauma as a sudden, unexpected, extraordinary occurrence that is overwhelming and often life-threatening to you or someone close to you.
Traumas include experiencing:
- Violent crimes
- A motor vehicle accident
- Exposure to suicide
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Natural disasters
- Being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease
- The sudden or unexpected loss of a loved one.
Ilse says these experience often leave you with feelings of helplessness and horror.
This begs the question “Is it possible to be traumatised by the COVID-19 pandemic?”
Ilse says that a basic answer can be found in the Greek word “trauma” which means “wound”, conveying that a person has suffered a psychological wound.
So, ask yourself, “Have I been injured or damaged psychologically?”
“Certainly, it’s quite possible,” says Ilse. “We must remember that everyone is unique. Your past experiences and unique psychological strengths and weaknesses influence your response to both stressful and traumatic events. Your individual, family and community beliefs, values, world view, support systems and other resources also shape the meaning of events and play a big role in how and when you will perceive and recover from stress or trauma.”
“For many people the pandemic came as a shock, as almost every aspect of everyday life was overturned. Photos of people panic buying flooded social media in the days prior to the lockdown. Children were ordered to stay home from school. Nobody was allowed to visit their loved ones. People lost their jobs. Others became sick with the virus and experienced the loss of a loved one because of it. Then there are the essential workers who went to work every day, risking exposure to the virus.”
“While this might be stressful to one person, to you it might feel traumatic because it has challenged your core belief system and how you see the world. When you have been traumatised, your life, the meaning of your life and self, and your ability to make sense of your life, takes a 180 degree turn. Your normal coping mechanisms have failed. It’s been over a month of feeling this way. You are not coping,” Ilse explains.
So, what can you do?
“Try to figure out whether you’re stressed or whether your feelings are a response to what you perceive to be a trauma,” says Ilse.
She says you should look at your symptoms and how long you have been experiencing them:
- Do you have unwanted and upsetting memories of something that has happened?
- Do you blame yourself or someone else for it?
- Are you having overly negative thoughts and assumptions about yourself or the world?
- Do you feel isolated and have decreased interest in things that you used to enjoy?
- Are you having difficulty sleeping or concentrating?
- Do you feel irritable or aggressive?
- Are you able to pinpoint what caused your trauma or are you unable to recall its key features?
“If you feel like your normal coping mechanisms are completely overwhelmed, and you have been experiencing a few of these symptoms for more than a month and you feel that your whole view of the world has changed, ask for help,” stresses Ilse.
Women are strong, but we need support
Ilse say women often believe that if we are strong, we can make it through a trauma on our own. But, she says, many who have a hard time overcoming trauma are those who think they don’t need help, bottle up their feelings, hide what they’re going through, and struggle alone.
“One of the main reasons why some women develop longer term trauma-related problems is a lack of support. A good social support system helps survivors to rethink their traumatic events which can contribute in a natural way to healing. Try to reach out to your loved ones, friends or colleagues. By sharing your life, and sharing your experiences of trauma with a trusted person or a professional, you give yourself permission, space and the support you need to heal,” she says.
“Right now, you might think that nothing good can come from the trauma you have experienced. But it is possible that something positive can emerge from it. One possibility is personal growth. Personal growth doesn’t happen overnight and often doesn’t happen without support and self-belief. Belief in your own capacity to find healing, resilience, strength and peace plays a crucial role in this process. The good and positive only comes from what we decide to do with the experience,” Ilse explains.
More about the expert:
Ilse de Beer is a psychologist, specialising in health psychology. As a motivational speaker, she focuses on equipping people to function better emotionally in their day-to-day life. She holds a Magister Artium in Psychology from the Potchefstroom University for CHE as well as a PhD in Psychology from the University of Pretoria. Learn more about Ilse de Beer here.
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