Pandemic and Protests PTSD

July 6, 2020

Trauma is a deeply disturbing experience that can re-occur over a lifetime if untreated.

By Carol Covington and Siet Wright

The legacy of trauma is historic. The tools of resilience have been fortified by the passage of time. The COVID-19 pandemic and the current racial unrest are unlike anything many have experienced before.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, terrible accidents and violent personal assault. In many cases, PTSD is a generational trauma that a person is born into.

The COVID-19 pandemic may cause a fear response in people with PTSD that triggers the distress of fear of losing loved ones, dying themselves and simple fear of the unknown.

Lines of people at stores hoarding basic necessities such as food and toilet paper increases the anxiety a person may feel if they are unable to stock up on these supplies. Increasing death-tolls, social distancing and economic peril contributes to PTSD symptoms that may cause an inability to cope, leading a person to unhealthy substance abuse, violence or self-harm.  

For people born with the generational trauma inherited from their parents and grandparents of racial disparity, poverty, violence or scarcity; the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests added to the already ever-present PTSD symptoms. For those people born with generational trauma, there is no beginning and no end. Their real-life experiences have grafted a sort-of hopelessness from being constantly exposed to trauma. This means their reactive response to trauma is always on, creating many layers of trauma that can be overwhelming to deal with.

PTSD is not something easily treated. There is no pill or quick-fix remedy for a life of trauma. What took a lifetime to create, it takes a lifetime to treat.

Brian Bagwell, Psy.D is a professor in the Human Services and Counseling department at MSU Denver and is the coordinator of the Fire and Emergency Response Administration program. Dr. Bagwell spent time providing psychological care to the New York City Police Department following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He teaches a course on Trauma and Resilience at MSU Denver.

“Because the COVID-19 pandemic and the external elements which may trigger the compound and complex impact on those with PTSD,” Bagwell said. “The variables are out of our control and how you modify your life will determine the degree of how it affects you.”

He suggests stepping away from the news and social media outlets where the triggering barrage of violence is more graphic. With many therapists conducting sessions online, care is readily available to those with internet access. He also suggests re-connecting with your support network of family and friends. It’s critical in this time to find comfort in loved ones and stay connected.

Coping with trauma is a lifelong endeavor and being able to confront that fear and pain takes many various tools and forms.

Meditation, therapy and activism are some of the ways that people can cope with PTSD symptoms. Talking with people who have suffered from similar traumas can be an ongoing treatment that helps to alleviate anxiety. Meditation can calm the mind from unsettling memories.

In her Meditation and Activism class, Professor Anahi Russo Garrido, Ph.D., teaches different forms of meditation to allow individuals to confront and deal with PTSD symptoms and manage stress. She believes that using meditation and activism helps to empower people that have suffered from traumatic experiences by offering methods to use the negative for a positive outcome.

“As one engages with difficult, infuriating, painful and long-term historical issues that require all of our attention and time,” said Russo Garrido. “It is key to make a space for contemplative moments. Meditation can be a tool, which offers this space.”

Meditation may offer a space to grieve and sit with one’s feelings. It may provide the clarity to re-energize and keep going. This can give a person a chance to make decisions with intention instead of acting from a place of fear.

86-year-old Metropolitan State University of Denver alumna Annie Redmond, B.A. Sociology ’75 is a historian and expert in trauma. Her earliest memories of racism were in her primary years while walking the long path to school. The school bus would slow down as it passed Annie and the other black children so the white kids inside could spit and curse at them. She knew that education would be her salvation, but life put many detours in her path.

The tragedy of current events triggered long buried trauma from her past, as she recalled the murder of her uncle in 1951, when she was 17 years old. He was accused of making inappropriate contact with a white woman and was shot in the back. That trauma is reactivated every time she hears reports in the news of another young black man killed. Redmond believes that the COVID-19 pandemic and the current racial unrest is unlike any she has experienced.

Redmond has faith that there is going to be a change. The call to action is a call she has heard before. Present in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and political positioning of the Black Panther Party, she has made a declaration of her own prediction. Things are changing and this is a different time.

“This is something totally different,” she says. “People on every corner of the world are standing up and saying enough is enough.”

AHEC Counseling Center offers services to help combat post-traumatic stress disorder such as crisis intervention, individual counseling, support groups, addiction services and a free online assessment. The Counseling Center also offers a list of mental health apps to help keep track of PTSD symptoms and learn methods of managing treatment.

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