Researchers are beginning to uncover the effects of the pandemic, with one 2021 study classifying it as a traumatic stressor that can bring forth symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and worsen mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety.
As our collective traumas mount with each passing month of the pandemic, the need to honor (and tell) our backstories, acknowledge the effects of trauma, and to respond with compassion, is more important than ever.
That's why psychologists like Thema Bryant, PhD, director of the Culture and Trauma Research Lab at Pepperdine University, are advocating for trauma-informed care not just in the world of mental health, but in all areas of society, like schools, hospitals, faith centers, and beyond.
What does trauma really mean?
Trauma is a word often surrounded by shame and stigma, and it's notoriously difficult to talk about. It’s also more common than many realize, with 70 percent of U.S. adults having faced at least one traumatic event, according to the Sidran Institute.
Bryant, author of the upcoming book “Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self,” says that trauma involves “life events and life circumstances that can make it very difficult for us to survive, for us to function, for us to relate to other people, for us to feel good about ourselves.”
Trauma isn't just about what happened to you. It's also how you (and your nervous system) responded to what happened.
There's a widely held belief that the term is reserved for the “worst circumstances possible.” While perspective matters, many people dismiss their experiences as “not that bad.”
But trauma isn't just about what happened to you. It's also how you (and your nervous system) responded to what happened.
When a major stress overloads the nervous system, it can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress, like feeling anxious, being easily startled, or feeling overwhelmed. These lasting changes are silent indicators of trauma.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as an event(s) that was experienced as “physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
While trauma includes major events, like physical or sexual assault, accidents, abuse, and violence, it also includes repeated events, such as domestic abuse or childhood neglect, which is known as complex trauma.
How trauma impacts people and communities
“I wish that people understood how pervasive and detrimental trauma can be on all of us holistically. It affects us not only psychologically. It affects our physical health,” says Bryant, who’s also the president-elect of the American Psychological Association.
When left unaddressed, the effects of trauma on individuals and society are vast, and according to Bryant, the “consequences are often long term without some type of intervention or healing pathway.”
With this in mind, now is the time for us to start recognizing the impacts of the pandemic on us all and considering what we need in order to heal.
One research review shows an association between childhood trauma and medical conditions in adulthood, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic pain, and fibromyalgia.
Trauma not only affects the mind, but it impacts the body, too. Experiencing extreme stress can actually change the brain, leading to symptoms including:
Trauma places a huge strain on our physical bodies, especially when stress occurs over a longer period of time.
This stress can also show up in our physical health. A 2020 review shows an association between childhood trauma and medical conditions in adulthood, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic pain, and fibromyalgia.
Trauma has substantial cultural impacts too, with marginalized communities experiencing higher rates of trauma — including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ folks — and so cultural competence is a crucial aspect of being sensitive to trauma.