Global crises include international events such as major wars, drought, famine, revolution, and pandemics, including the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to take thousands of American lives per day, quickly overtaking our previous records for deadliest days in U.S. history. Unfortunately, events like this that wreck our communities and take the lives of our loved ones have a tendency to cause mass trauma, exacerbating an existing trauma problem in the United States.
Let’s talk about the link between global crises and trauma, the symptoms of trauma, and what to do if you or a loved one is suffering from the effects of a traumatic event.
Trauma in the United States
According to research from the Sidran Institute for Trauma Stress Education and Advocacy, up to 70 percent of adults in the United States will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. Of those, twenty percent or more will develop a trauma disorder such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Sidran Institute goes on to clarify rates of developing PTSD for several types of trauma, including sexual assault, experiencing or witnessing violence, unexpected death of a loved one, and natural disasters.
Trauma during global crises
There have been several studies about the effects of trauma in prior pandemics, often because of grief over the loss of loved ones. In a prior pandemic–the SARS outbreak–both medical professionals and the people quarantined in their homes reported psychological distress from the event. This type of trauma is a financial problem, too: it can impact job performance, and for medical professionals, this trauma can threaten patient safety. Of course, trauma from COVID-19 is not limited to those we have personally lost, but also in how we collectively cope with the incomprehensible death tolls, economic uncertainty, and inconsistent messages and responses by public officials.
This is not the only trauma due to global events that Americans faced in 2020. We must also consider the trauma of another global crisis happening right now: climate change. As of the time of writing, the unexpected snowstorm in Texas left millions of homes without power, hundreds of thousands of homes without drinking water, and many people struggling to find food. Year after year we see more hurricanes; while a typical year has 12 named weather events, 2020 had an unprecedented 30 named storms, which cost the United States $37 billion and killed hundreds of people worldwide.
These weather events are all a direct result of climate change, and they put an unequal burden on people living in poverty. This is especially cruel considering that poverty–another global problem–already shares a strong link with trauma and addiction.
Extreme and unpredictable weather events take lives and homes, and in their wake, leave behind trauma for the people involved and secondary traumatization for those in close proximity to those directly impacted. One study following young people who had experienced Hurricane Katrina found that of their 426 subjects, 25% met the criteria for PTSD, and 4% had not improved after two years.
The wounds of trauma can last even beyond the affected person’s lifetime. Intergenerational trauma, for example, is a phenomenon wherein the trauma done to one person can impact how they raise their children, which can have a ripple effect on several generations after the event. This can also include historical trauma–a type of intergenerational trauma following major events that took place against an ethnic group, such as the Holocaust, slavery, or colonization of indigenous peoples.
Trauma goes beyond the diagnosis of PTSD. It is often the root of other mental illnesses including depression and anxiety. Childhood trauma can also contribute to borderline personality disorder, and trauma that does not have one specific cause (such as trauma from years of neglect or abuse) may fit the criteria for Complex PTSD (CPTSD). There is also a strong link between trauma and addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Even if you do not fit the criteria for a mental illness, trauma can still cause many problems in your physical and behavioral health, and have a ripple effect on your emotions. Some symptoms of trauma may include:
- Changes in appetite, mood, or sleep patterns
- Loss of passion for life or hobbies
- Flashbacks, memories, or dreams about the traumatic event
- Memory loss
- Disorientation, dissociation, confusion, or a feeling that you are out of touch with reality
- Avoiding difficult thoughts or problems, including through the use of drugs and alcohol or working too much
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Constant fatigue or exhaustion
- Overwhelming negative feelings such as sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, or shame
What can you do?
If you are experiencing these symptoms, you don’t have to go through it alone. You deserve love and support in healing from your trauma.
Try reaching out to supportive friends and family first to let them know you’re struggling. (If a loved one is experiencing these symptoms, read up on ways you can help support them, and make sure they know they do not have to go through this problem alone.) The people in your life may be able to help keep you on track when facing things gets difficult. If you need help making difficult phone calls, or even help with household tasks like cooking or cleaning, don’t be afraid to ask.
Try to take care of yourself physically and mentally as best you can. Little things like keeping your daily routine, eating a balanced diet, getting out in nature, making time for friends, and fitting some exercise in your day can help you feel normal. Mindful activities such as yoga or journaling may also help you process your emotions.
If your trauma symptoms last for several weeks, don’t be afraid to seek outside help. You can talk to your doctor, find a support group, or seek out a trauma-informed therapist to help you process what is happening around you. (And thankfully, many doctors, therapists, and support groups are offering virtual therapy sessions to minimize COVID risk.)
The effects of COVID-19 are not going away soon, and the trauma that it leaves behind may cause a “second pandemic” of mental health crises. During times like these, it’s even more important for you to check in with those around you–and with yourself. None of us deserves to face these problems alone.