Highly challenging situations can no doubt cause a wide range of psychological and physiological responses in human beings. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as an emotional response, pain and shock caused by an extremely upsetting situation. As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, it’s important for us to recognise that at this time of crisis, the trauma experienced can lead to mental health challenges for many. Some are affected directly – being exposed to the virus itself, losing a loved one to the disease, a job loss or indirect consequences like witnessing chaos in the global economy. Like most of you out there, I too had coronavirus affect me directly, firstly having been exposed to the virus itself in early March. The classic symptoms – fever, shortness of breath and fatigue, but like 80% of those affected by the disease, my symptoms were relatively moderate and I was fortunate to recover swiftly on my own. As a family too, we’ve had to incur other direct consequences - my daughter who had been preparing for her GCSEs for two years was suddenly told that there would be no exams anymore, her results purely dependent on teacher assessments and other unknown factors; her milestone 16th Birthday was to be celebrated with friends and a holiday abroad, instead it was a quiet one in complete lockdown. I can go on but we know that collectively as a community and a society we are finding ourselves in an unprecedented time with no inclination as to when this would all change or go back to the familiar normal.
Unfortunately trauma is no stranger to me. I’ve had multiple traumas in life but the one that comes closest to this current situation is my experience of being at the World Trade Centre on 9/11 in New York City and the aftermath that followed. Again, as I reflect, that too was an unprecedented time for many of my fellow New Yorkers and as I recall, my whole sense of normality was lost. There was the event itself, surviving death/physical/mental trauma and then months of displacement with various consequences that followed. There is this one aspect of the current lockdown that reminds me of my time post 9/11 – the loneliness, self-isolation and a sense of complete despair. As my partner and I lived in Ground Zero we were physically displaced for a number of months. The first few weeks we stayed with friends, following days in hotels and then finally we were allowed to return ‘home’. I use the term ‘home’ loosely here because even though I want to call it that, it didn’t feel anything like home. The area surrounding our building was like a war zone – high rise buildings destroyed and brought to the ground, my neighbourhood ensconced with clouds of smoke and soot, the area closed off to non-residents for months, the army stationed everywhere and IDs checked just to leave home to get groceries, which by the way was 2 miles away. I remember mobile mortuaries being set up on my way to buy milk and shaking when I would hear an aeroplane fly in the sky and even today I have no words to really describe all of my experiences or nightmares that followed. Today, in the time of the coronavirus pandemic the one thing that strikes me the most in terms of the similarity to my 9/11 experience is how both events are highly traumatic and how so many millions around the globe now are suffering in silence.
So here is the key question – what did my trauma teach me? Trauma taught me resilience and learning to be resilient completely changed the way I live, work and be. And of course trauma helped me find purpose. But the biggest, biggest learning, the most basic one without which I’m not even sure I would be here is this - Trauma taught me to get help. And when I say help, I mean professional help. Let me be honest here, it took me a while to seek help. Like many, I suffered for years in silence and hoped that the nightmares and flashbacks would just pass. But a few years post 9/11 and another trauma later, I ended up being diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD as I learnt later has no time limit and can manifest even years after a traumatic event. And as scary as that sounds, even today I believe that my diagnosis was the best thing that ever happened to me. It changed everything and opened a door into this world of mental health that I had no clue about. As part of my treatment, I worked for a year with two counsellors who specialised in PTSD, I attended PTSD group therapies and after many sessions of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) I got strong. And when I say strong, it was just not a return to baseline but to a strength higher than that which eventually led to posttraumatic growth (PTG) – growth following highly challenging situations. This growth and transformation manifested in numerous ways for me – I ran 40 half marathons in 2 years across Europe, I worked with a coach to understand my purpose and learnt that I want to make a change in the mental health space. I followed my passion, trained to become a coach, changed my profession, and I am now back in school doing my Masters in positive psychology with the deepest yearning to earn a doctorate in the coming years in posttraumatic growth. And none of this would have been remotely possible if I didn’t seek help. Today, through this pandemic I use all the tools and interventions I learnt from my counsellors and I am so proud that using my own skills as a professional coach, I can coach clients including healthcare and key workers during these tough times and make a difference in the mental health space.
I can continue to write more but I’m going to stop here for now with this single message – Trauma is real. It can affect the way we live and it can have a huge impact on our mental and physical health over the years. So, don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it. This one act can change your life.