How the trauma of the pandemic has worsened our addictions

Covid has been traumatic for many:

The Covid-19 pandemic has been with us for nearly a year now, and I have noticed that many people have been traumatized by the pandemic and that their trauma has led to dysfunctional coping strategies.

How is it that I’ve noticed this? I happen to be an expert in trauma. Over the years I have diagnosed and treated hundreds of people with trauma-related conditions, so I feel well-equipped to write this article.

Before I go any further I should define “trauma.” Trauma is an emotional response to severe stress that can also have mental and physical manifestations. A person with trauma can have problems with energy, cognitive abilities, attitude, sleep, appetite, and mood.

What causes trauma?

What causes trauma? It can be a life-threatening event like a serious car accident, a house fire, a frightening medical diagnosis, being held up at gunpoint or being a combat soldier. It can come from witnessing a terrible event or experiencing a terrible loss or a series of losses. It can come from physical, emotional or sexual violence, either during childhood or in adulthood. And, it should be noted that traumatic events are cumulative, so the more a person experiences, the more traumatized they could be.

It’s fair to say that due to Covid, many people in Canada and the US are experiencing symptoms of trauma these days. As a psychiatrist, I’m noticing that some people are more impatient or irritable with their family members or co-workers; some are more jumpy or on edge; some are having nightmares and some are spacing out a lot. Some people are withdrawing from their friends and family even more than the social distancing measures would require. Some are feeling apathetic and unable to get motivated, and many people are indulging in too much food, drink or drugs.

If you’re wondering whether you’ve been traumatized by the pandemic, ask yourself three questions:

1.    Have I experienced one or more severe stresses or losses since the onset of the pandemic? (This could include losing your job or your business; losing one or more loved ones, or having had a serious bout of the virus yourself, especially if you had to be hospitalized or if you have ongoing severe symptoms.)

2.    Am I noticing problems with my mood, temper, sleep, energy, enthusiasm, attitude and/or thinking?

3.    Am I coping by eating more sweets or comfort foods? Am I drinking more than usual or using drugs?

If you answer “yes” to these questions, then you’re experiencing trauma due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ll be offering some tips for how to cope in a healthier way very shortly, but first, I want to talk about what might make someone more susceptible to experiencing trauma due to the pandemic, and what might make someone less susceptible to it.

Addiction and trauma:

Over the years, I’ve noticed an association between addiction and trauma. In fact, I tend to see trauma as an unconscious and counter-productive coping strategy to trauma. It arises from a more primitive, or simple, part of the psyche and results in our choosing the easiest, quickest way to numb our pain, distract us from it or to artificially boost our mood. Unfortunately, addiction never can help us heal our trauma and it usually makes things worse, both by preventing us from seeking meaningful solutions to our suffering and by creating other problems for us.

Another problem with addiction is that once we start indulging in the addictive behaviour, it stimulates the dopamine-producing part of our brain and the dopamine, in turn, increases our cravings, making us a slave to our addictions. If we want to heal from our trauma, we need to see that engaging in addictive behaviour only makes it worse.

In my book, Emotional Overeating, I show how trauma can lead to addiction of any type, and how to heal from the trauma so that you can be free of your addiction, once and for all.

The people who are most likely to be traumatized by the pandemic are those who:

1.    Have had one or more traumatic experiences in the past, which makes them more vulnerable today

2.    Have experienced multiple or extreme losses during the pandemic

3.    Are less aware of their feelings and needs, so they don’t realize when they’re going downhill

4.    Turn to “quick and easy” solutions to their problems, so they don’t get the help they really need

The people who are less likely to be traumatized by the pandemic are those who:

1.    Have no past history of trauma, which makes them less likely to develop trauma from a new stressor

2.    Have had a relatively easy time of it with minimal losses and lives that are relatively unchanged

3.    Have solid emotional well-being because of a positive childhood and a happy adult life

4.    Are more resilient and able to bounce back better by turning life’s lemons into lemonade

5.    Have more emotional tools at their disposal – either because they were born with them or because they developed them as adults – which enables them to have excellent coping strategies toward stress

So how do you deal with the trauma you’ve been experiencing due to Covid-19? In part, it depends on how severely you’ve been affected. If you’re really struggling to cope at work; if you’re getting into arguments with your loved ones or completely withdrawing from them, and/or if you’re drinking or drugging to excess, then you need professional help in the form of trauma-based psychotherapy and possibly medications as well.

If you are less severely affected, there are some things that can help you to feel a lot better. You may still want to consider getting some professional help, but all of my suggestions will accelerate your recovery.I have developed a successful technique for dealing with trauma.

The five steps you’ll need to follow to heal from your trauma:

1.    Face your feelings. Take the time to tune in to your feelings. If you notice that you’re much more sad, angry, agitated, anxious, apathetic, unmotivated or irritable lately, you could be suffering from trauma.

2.    Grieve your losses. You need to actually grieve – that means cry and mourn – the hurts and losses you’ve been experiencing. This process doesn’t happen overnight. You might need multiple grieving sessions in order to heal your trauma, but that’s okay. Grieving is good for you. Crying releases a huge number of health-giving chemicals and lowers your levels of the stress hormones – cortisol and adrenalin, while it raises the levels of feel-good brain chemicals – the endorphins.

3.    Self-soothe appropriately. It’s easy to turn to addictions to self-soothe, but these don’t actually work. The only way to effectively self-soothe is to spend time acknowledging your pain and losses and consoling yourself emotionally. You can also engage in soothing activities such as taking a hot bath, getting a massage; going for a walk in nature, listening to or playing music, quiet yoga, journaling or doing art.

4.    Work hard at getting better. Trauma can be very debilitating and in order to heal, you’re going to have to put some real effort into it. You’ll need to push yourself to do positive things that are perhaps difficult but rewarding, such as regular exercise, a regular creative practice, engaging in constructive hobbies or practicing meditation. Also, you’ll need to discipline yourself to avoid negative behaviours like overindulging in mindless pastimes and/or addictive substances.

5.    Let go of your pain. This can take a long time, but ultimately, you want to get on the other side of your losses and stop seeing yourself as a trauma victim but rather, as someone who had an experience of trauma. You do this by repeating steps one to four as many times as necessary.

Trauma is an expected response to severe stress, and the Covid-19 pandemic is for many of us, about as stressful as can be. Please take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally, so that you can ride out the end of this pandemic in a good a shape as possible.

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