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Coping With Trauma in the Wake of COVID-19

A man overcome with grief after COVID-19.

With vaccines widely available, COVID-19 cases falling and more and more public spaces reopening, relief is finally starting to be felt across most of the U.S.

It's a welcome sign after the toll the pandemic has taken. More than 570,000 Americans have died, and 32 million have been infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many lost livelihoods and businesses. Many people physically distanced from loved ones for more than a year. And the routines and rituals of normal life, from classroom instruction to milestone celebrations and funerals, were dramatically and indefinitely upended.

"We will never have lived in a world where this pandemic didn't happen and we didn't experience this level of fear, loss, grief, helplessness and disconnection for a really extended period of time."

Cedars-Sinai chaplain Reverend Peggy Kelley with the Cedars-Sinai Spiritual Care Department.

"It's a time now where we take a deep sigh—and breathe," says Reverend Peggy Kelley, a chaplain in the Cedars-Sinai Spiritual Care Department

While you might be excited, moving forward might also be harder to navigate than you expect. As we begin to wade out of the worst of the pandemic, everyone is carrying the weight of the past year on their shoulders. Experts say to prepare for a range of emotional and mental reactions—and to not be surprised by anxiety and pent-up grief.

"It's going to be a ride for people," Peggy cautions.

Be gentle with yourself

Enduring such a prolonged crisis means that people adapted to a new way of life. Emerging from it will require a period of discovery and renegotiating your surroundings. Being around people again, managing relationships, looking into each other's eyes or hugging might feel different than it used to— or might even be scary, Peggy says. 

You may even feel disappointed if the reality does not match your expectations.

"When a crisis ends, everybody wants to celebrate, but there's also this sense of, ''Now what?'" she says.

Allow yourself to feel all of those feelings without judgment or pressure. And go slow.

You may be in survival mode still for several months until you feel safe enough to process the trauma you've endured, says Cedars-Sinai psychiatrist Dr. Scott Campbell.

"Your task right now is to take a small step, put your toe back into the pool, reacclimate and survive," he says.

Practice grounding

Mindfulness, a technique emphasizing acceptance and awareness in the present moment, can be very helpful during major transitions.

Because so many factors are still out of your hands, Dr. Campbell suggests taking control of what you can. Staying on a schedule can be grounding, for example.

Peggy also recommends documenting your thoughts and feelings, whether it's writing them down in a journal or recording voice memos on your phone.

"I do this with patients all the time as a therapeutic intervention to remind yourself who you are, what you've been through and your resilience," she says.

Mindfulness also includes paying attention to your body.

Stress often causes unexplained physical symptoms such as new gastrointestinal problems, diarrhea and belly pain, muscle aches, fatigue and headaches, Dr. Campbell explains.

Keep fears in check

Anxiety has soared during COVID-19, alongside a host of other mental health and stress-related challenges. About 40% of American adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders during the pandemic, compared with 11% in 2019, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That could persist, because uncertainty and COVID-19 risks remain. The emergence of new COVID-19 variants, the looming possibility of another surge and questions about what's safe to do once you're vaccinated—as well as varying timelines for vaccination and comfort levels—all complicate matters. 

The fear of social reentry adds another layer. 

Check in with yourself. "Everybody has to go at their own pace with this and honor those feelings," Peggy says.

Most people will experience some residual anxiety, Dr. Campbell notes. But if it continues and disrupts your ability to function—for example, if you're still isolating, calling in sick from work or having new behavioral issues—those are red flags and could mean it's time to seek more support. 

Make room for grief

Everyone has faced so much loss during the pandemic, without anywhere to put it. 

Grief takes time, says Dr. Megan Auster-Rosen, a clinical psychologist at Cedars-Sinai. And the lack of options for grieving together has caused a delay in the process. 

"We have to let ourselves grieve," Peggy adds.

When you're able to, try to take part in mourning rituals you may have missed and that allow you to honor your loved ones, such as visiting their gravesite with others who loved them. 

It's important to set aside time to intentionally allow yourself to go through the process, Peggy says, whether that's lighting a candle with a photo or crying in a safe space with people or pets. If it feels too overwhelming, put a timer on it and make short, manageable dates with your grief.

She adds that if the pain becomes too much for you, there are places to turn for help, such as therapy and spiritual support.  

There is no going back

"We will never have lived in a world where this pandemic didn't happen and we didn't experience this level of fear, loss, grief, helplessness and disconnection for a really extended period of time," Dr. Auster-Rosen says.

Rather than trying to return to how things were, we need to focus on integrating this experience into our identities and recognizing that we've been through something traumatic, she adds.

Peggy says people have been very girded and rigid during the pandemic.

"I hope there's a kindness that can come out of this," she says. "We need softening so much right now."