As we emerge from the depths of the global Covid-19 crisis, only now do we have the chance to look back and realise the enormity of what we’ve been through — and how deeply it has affected each of us. So how can we work through it?
Every now and again, an event such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one blindsides us, altering the state of our being and how we live our lives — but rarely is there one that affects us collectively. The coronavirus pandemic has been a global trauma, we have been ‘in it together’, so to speak. Everyone has a personal ‘before’ and ‘after’ and has been affected in some way by the virus; we can all relate to each other.
But each of us has also been affected in a personal way and we must find our own way to navigate out of the crisis. In the 18 months since the pandemic darkened our shores, more than 4.7 million have died globally, economies have been flattened, people have lost their jobs, been locked inside their homes, missing funerals and cancelling weddings.
Many have found unexpected resilience in the face of it. For others, it has been a trauma that has shaken their very core, leaving a daily struggle to stay afloat.
In the beginning this was understandably heightened as collectively we reached a sort of fever pitch in the bleak mix of concerns. A survey of 195 psychiatrists by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland in May and June 2020 reported 79pc of them seeing an increase in generalised anxiety, 72pc an increase in health anxiety, 57pc an increase in depression and 54pc an increase in panic symptoms. The good news is that this tsunami of mental health issues didn’t seem to last as we learnt to accept our status quo and found ways to cope. What this points to is that we, as humans, are a resilient bunch.
However, we have still some navigating to do and for many, it’s not so black and white. So how do we, collectively and individually, process the trauma? As we emerge from the crisis and find our feet, it’s not business as usual but perhaps about finding a new way of doing things, controlling what we can control and framing the crisis not just in terms of what is lost but also what might be gained. We spoke to five people with varying areas of expertise and different approaches to tackling trauma to see what they advise.
We’re recovering from the first global mass trauma event since World War II. ‘Trauma’ may not be the term that springs to mind when we think of the last year-and-a-half, but it can be a looser term than we realise and is often associated with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
“PTSD is a cluster of symptoms that occur when someone has had a life-threatening and uncontrollable life event,” explains Richard Bentall who, together with Mark Shevlin at the University of Ulster, has been studying PTSD. “Trauma is very individual: some people may experience traumatic life events and walk away unscathed in every sense of the word. There’s no lock-and-key explanation for it, but you tend to see a lot of PTSD associated with highly stressful situations such as war, criminal assaults, rapes, car crashes, injuries and illnesses.”
Death traumatises, always: continual reminders of the virus traumatise and re-traumatise. The pandemic, in all its other guises, delivered plenty of high-stress situations for people, and consequently a reason for Bentall and his colleagues to study its effect on people’s mental health. They discovered that there were primary changes in people’s mental health in the initial stages of the pandemic: a rise in depression and anxiety or ‘traumatic stress’ but, overall, 60pc of the population were very resilient, maintaining good mental health throughout. They found that 20pc of the population showed marked deterioration, another group showed a marked improvement and, lastly, a smaller cohort showed significant psychiatric immobility.
“What we discovered was that economic effects magnified the state of some people’s mental health. Middle-class professionals, for example, who managed to keep working throughout and saved money were happier and those who had been furloughed or had a significant loss of income were suffering more.” Isolation, too, played a seminal role. People who had a greater connection to their neighbours were in better stead.
In fact, collective trauma is not akin to individual trauma, says Bentall. A study that was done on 20 countries revealed that the fallout of individual traumas such as being attacked was far greater than being caught up on a collective crisis. “I saw it myself when I visited central Italy following an earthquake there a few years ago. They came together, united against all odds. As humans, we have a fundamental need to belong, and when people bind together to help each other, it’s hugely protective.”
He goes further to explain that the way we organise ourselves as a society has huge implications for our mental health and the pandemic was a lab for those type of processes — testing the ground, the boundaries, and the people within it, to the max.
David Trickey, a psychologist and representative of the UK Trauma Council, describes trauma as a rupture in ‘meaning-making’. When the way you see yourself, the world and other people is overturned by an event and simple stress cascades into trauma. “Even things like being fired can force the system into high alert,” explains Bentall. The oil that keeps our cognitive machine going is depleted and if it’s not replaced, we can become unrooted.
Trickey believes it takes a new round of ‘meaning-making’ to work through trauma’s impact. “It can come back to simple, every-day things like exercising daily, helping others, remaining connected and having a purpose,” Bentall confirms. “We have to treat the pandemic as an opportunity to learn and to do something and not sit around.”
According to life coach and spiritual healer Judith McAdam, we’re only scratching the recovery surface of the pandemic; we will be feeling the repercussions for some time to come. “Whatever was already there has been agitated,” says McAdam, who has seen a huge rise in the number of clients looking for ways to ease their Covid-19-related anxiety and trauma.
“Covid has magnified existing problems and created new ones and people are losing confidence in their own ability to manage those problems.”
In her book The Source, she explores the principle that connecting and harnessing the source energy that lies within us is key to creating happiness and a life we want. We are creating our own reality all the time, she explains, but we are doing it haphazardly because we’re not aware of how to communicate with our subconscious mind, which is often tangled in negative thoughts.
Fear is one of the main reasons people are held back or stuck. McAdam believes that anything that is composed of fear is trauma.
“I’m seeing it every day, in young children who come to see me who can’t articulate it but are feeling anxious all the time; young adults who are self-harming; grown men and women who are so paralysed with fear and anxiety that they don’t know how to move forward. Whether people have caught the virus or not, it’s frightening and our sense of real life and its rhythms have been disrupted.”
When the pandemic began, McAdam extended her online services by offering free weekly visualisations — one of the key tools she uses in her practice.
So many people logged on week after week that she kept it going. It’s one of the positive fallouts, says McAdam, an online community that has grown from the need for people to share their problems and feelings.
She advises to watch carefully for the warning signs and lingering effects on children. If adults are anxious, children are going to feel that. “Kids are quietly suffering, so the trick is to catch the warning signs early and manage the momentum, otherwise it catches like wildfire and, by the time they are in their teens, it can be out of control.”
The good news is there are lots of easy and effective ways to prevent that anxiety snowballing. Meditation is often difficult for people, especially children, but there are lots of visualisations suitable for adults and kids that help create new loops and habits. “I also find the concept of a magical worry box is great for kids, with the idea that they put their worries into this box at the end of every day. Homeopathic remedies are wonderful, too, but even simple breathing exercises can help relieve stress quickly. It may not seem like it when you’re in the eye of the storm, but huge challenges often mean huge growth. It’s really about creating new neural pathways around self-help. Even trauma can be harvested into something good.”
“I often think of anxiety like a bar of soap,” says Dr Claire Hayes. “If we don’t use it, it’ll stay a bar of soap but if we wash our hands with it, it’ll get smaller. It’s about acknowledging the anxiety and going through the motions with support if needs be.”
According to Dr Hayes, trauma comes down to individual perception. What one person experiences as traumatic may not be the case for someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less legitimate. Anxiety is a normal mechanism for danger and, in a lot of cases, people’s warning mechanism is damaged by what they think, explains Dr Hayes. They might minimise the event, for example, or avoid the feeling completely because it doesn’t feel good. “A person might be feeling anxious about going back to work, for example, and convince themselves they’re fine at home where it’s safe, but the longer they stay at home, the worse that transition is going to be. As the saying goes, feel the fear and do it anyway — but with compassion.”
Dr Hayes cites CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) as an effective and practical way of dealing with trauma. CBT works off the principle that how we think, act and feel are all interconnected. By identifying troubling situations you can become aware of them, and of your thoughts and emotions around them, and work to reshape the negative thoughts, finding different ways of thinking and coping. “It’s really about acknowledging that it’s all normal; there’s nothing wrong with feeling anxious and finding the tools to help you through it.”
The same applies to children who may be experiencing the lingering effects of the pandemic but may not have the capacity to articulate it. The old adage of applying your own oxygen mask first holds weight, as Dr Hayes suggests we start with ourselves. How have you been impacted? Rather than assuming the experience has been awful for your kids, ask them the same question. “You might be surprised as to what has been good or difficult for them,” says Dr Hayes. “As long as they feel heard and their feelings acknowledged, we can help them balance the emotions and move on.” In Dr Hayes’s experience, it was the people who had suffered anxiety and depression pre-Covid-19 who were best able to cope during the pandemic. “These people have learnt particular skills in dealing with it that served them when the pandemic hit,” she explains. “The people who presented with mental-health issues early on were those who didn’t have those particular skills, and then there are those on the frontline who were working flat out throughout. When it eases for them, we may see a whole new cohort experiencing issues around mental health.”
Part of moving on comes back to gaining perspective, not minimising or exaggerating the event. Just looking at it for what it is. The narrative around the pandemic is really important going forward. “Whether we chose to look at it as catastrophic or minimise it, it plays forward. We have to acknowledge it for what it is, what it meant to us and what we can learn from it. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that we’re stronger than our fears and we keep going.”
Aware runs a series of extremely helpful free programmes for people who need support around mental health. aware.ie; drclairehayes.ie
“Pandemic or no pandemic, life can be just difficult,” says Michael Ryan. Considered to be one of Ireland’s best yoga and meditation teachers, he has President Michael D Higgins on his client list. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Ryan was busy, with a full roster of classes and admits to feeling a little “relieved” when lockdown delivered back some much-needed space and time for reflection. “Life is so noisy, we’re being pulled in so many directions and as a society we’re very good at controlling our outer worlds but not so great at controlling our inner worlds.”
Meditation, like yoga, is a self-empowerment practice, he explains, a way to meet challenges and see them not as things that are happening ‘to’ us but ‘for’ us. It’s about getting in touch with a calmer, deeper place within ourselves, becoming more aware which, in turn, helps us access and experience greater things. “It’s like a boat on an ocean, on the surface there could be storms but the deeper you go, the more still it gets.”
Yet many of us find ‘tapping into’ that quality challenging, our minds racing with to-do lists and stresses of the day — yogis refer to it as the ‘monkey mind’, jumping from branch to branch, avoiding what’s really down there. According to Ryan, we often get caught in the narrative, staying continually distracted and fragmented and that becomes our way of life. When Covid-19 hit, many of us were forced to stand still, something we, as humans, don’t excel at.
Crises push us into places where we are forced to face what it is we carry around but don’t usually address. The key is not staying in the victim place and instead looking at how that crisis can best serve you. The nugget a lot of us have taken from the pandemic is recognising that the world around us is uncontrollable and yet, as Ryan rightly points out, that’s always been the truth. “Life is unpredictable, we never really know what’s coming around the corner. Some look at that like an adventure, others with fear.”
The same can be said for trauma. The pandemic has created new traumas but trauma has been around a lot longer than the last 18 months. “Trauma is like a tightening,” he explains, “like a wave crashing over you and you can’t breathe. What meditation does is create internal space, giving us the opportunity to let go of the trauma we’re carrying, making our lives richer. A crisis often means we’re given something we didn’t want or expect. Our instinct is often to bury our heads and run, but if we accept and explore it, we get great perspective and can learn a great deal from it.”
It seems more people are staying and not running, looking for positive ways to weather the storm and meeting change as a normal part of life. In the last year, Ryan has seen a huge surge of interest in his daily YouTube videos and classes. Re-compassing ourselves is a top priority, it seems, but it can be as easy as taking some deep breaths or a walk in nature, says Ryan. “I’m interested in moving from that survival mode to having a life that’s thriving. How do we live richer lives? How can we best enjoy whatever time we have? They’re the important questions.”
The shape to Rachel Gotto’s story is a familiar one, growth out of trauma — a narrative we know from the lives of Nelson Mandela, Joe Biden and Oprah Winfrey. It’s one of hope, of growth through suffering, weathering one storm after another, only to emerge a better person. Gotto has weathered her fair share of storms, going back to when she arrived as a child in Ireland from the UK in the 1960s.
Her childhood is, in her words, too traumatic to discuss, but she recounts the following years with full transparency, detailing how she lost her brother when they were in their 20s. Although a year apart, she refers to him as her ‘twin’. He developed bowel cancer very young and despite giving up her job and travelling the world in search of a cure, he died in her arms.
The following year, she married the love of her life, Nick, only to lose him in a tragic scuba-diving accident eight months later.
Gotto was six months pregnant with their daughter, Nicola, when he died. “Nobody knew about PTSD back then, but that’s definitely what I experienced. I was in such a traumatic state of shock. I literally shook all day long, couldn’t sleep and had looped thoughts of the accident playing in my head.”
Following Nicola’s birth, Gotto started to experience physical difficulties, losing the feeling in her arms and leg while driving, for example, but dismissed them as a side effect of the stress. It was only when, a few years later, when Nicola found her mother unconscious on the floor, that they discovered she had a benign, yet inoperable, brain tumour. No surgeon would operate.
She went to the UK, where she got the same answer, until finally a chance meeting with a friend led her to one neurosurgeon who agreed to do the surgery — warning her of the “slim chances of survival” and a “high chance of paralysis” if she did. She went ahead anyway, but was left paralysed on one side.
“It was just more trauma on top of trauma,” says Gotto. “I was punch-drunk emotionally but set about rebuilding myself step by step, eventually walking.”
But there was still another blow to come. Her surgery had left her with epilepsy and a prescription-drug dependency, detoxing from which, was, she admits, far worse than anything else she’d experienced. It was a slow process but after two-and-a-half years, she emerged. “I was a shell. I’d lost everything. My confidence was on the floor.”
So how does a person, so battered and traumatised by life start to find their way back? “I started with what I knew to be true, that I was a kind person, and I stacked it on top of itself over and over. I spent a lot of time in nature and I used online communities — people who had been through similar traumas — to prop me up.”
As human beings, we’re inherently tribal, we thrive in community. Covid-19 has torn that fabric somewhat but it’s also brought us together. “Community is connection and if you assume that people are suffering the same problems you’re more likely to treat yourself with kindness and that’s really where it has to begin. The way you treat yourself is most important and changing that inner negative voice is key.”
One of the most powerful things Gotto did to overcome her trauma was letting go of the guilt she felt about her life. “There could well be more trauma to come, but I’m building the scaffolding to withstand it, starting with myself. I share my story because I hope to lead people who are traumatised to tell their own truth and that’s healing in itself.”