Traumatherapy during Corona – Crisis

by Lena Grabowski

Traumatherapy during Corona – Crisis

Corona times pose enormous challenges for almost all people, given the fact that many things that used to be normal have now become an exception. This has especially affected psychologically unstable and traumatized people, for whom even small changes in their lives are as disheartening as knocking away the crutches they have been treading with through life.

Trauma therapist, Lena Grabowski, talks about not only the challenges but also the opportunities in these turbulent times, which can be tapped into in the course of a trauma therapy, if we are willing to turn attentively to those fears and emotions that are more likely to daunt us now than they ever did before.

Traumatized people are strong survivors yet at the same time fragile souls, who have to fight against various symptoms that threaten the quality of life, such as: anixiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, dissociative disorders (separation of traumatic content from everyday consciousness), psychosomatic complaints, flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, auto immune disorders and depressive moods, to just name a few.

In one trauma therapy, for instance, I assisted a client who had been sufferung from dissociative disorders, hypervigiliance and anxiety since adolescence, caused by experiencing many years of violence in childhood, and who is now receiving psychiatric treatment. What mainly gave him strength and stabilization had so far been playing music in a small band, hiking in a familiar group and his 16-hour/week job. This was what had been keeping him going and bringing him occasional security up to now. It provided him with a sense of being part of life in manageable and trust-based contexts. In the course of 2020, however, his stabilizing factors started to collapse gradually. Ever since, he has been suffering from anxiety again, at an increasing and even higher level than usual, not to mention insomnia and an overwhelming sense of loneliness. How it sometimes all comes together and to add salt to injury, a few weeks ago, a relative of his passed away, and he lovingly organized his funeral under complicated corona circumstaces.

Mustering his last bit of strength, he has been coping with his own grieving process, not to mention handling an insane funeral. During this time, though, his symptoms have been worsening as his stress levels have increased. It has all been an inconceivable challange for him to face.

Opening Pandora’s box

His survival strategies that used to otherwise give him the much needed strength, are now having him plung into deep grief and exhaustion. His nerves are frayed and fragile. His tears gush uncontrollably, not only in his therapy sessions but also at home. He feels overwhelmed by calamity. Feelings of despair and powerlessness cloud his perception of his daily life, leaving him befuddled. In addition to feeling incredibly overwhelmed, he is daunted by a recurring sense of loneliness, which he had not been feeling for a while. „It is as if a Pandora’s box has been kicked open.“, is how he describes it. „But I prefer to grieve instead of being constantly afraid or not feeling anything at all.“, he told me in a session. He wants to face these feelings head on.

In order to bypasss retraumatization, I have explained to him that he would be walked through gently during his trauma therapy. A trauma sensitive approach, in addition to psychiatric treatment, would stabilize his condition. Together we have developed a new, conducive plan for him: when daunted by present feelings of overwhelming loneliness, he would now be drawing instead of playing music. He would be sitting in his favorite spot at home or in a park and drawing everything around him that his sense of sight is able to grasp. This exercise would help him concentrate inwardly and with mindfullness.

He has now started to process overwhelmingly painful memories mostly from his childhood by drawing the content of those memories in cartoon-like drawings. In a world of fantasy, he has invented a hero who is going through experiences similar to his and who is able to master them creatively. In the course of the therapy, we have been able to find an emotional link between his life and that of the hero he has invented, which has been an enriching experience. This creative expression has not only helped him process his all-consuming emotions and fight insomnia, but also has boosted his overall well-being. In addition, he has found a forum on the internet to have an exchange with like-minded illustrators, and he has made new friends, even if just virtual.

It is after acquiring stability and self-confidence through coping strategies that he will be able to jump in at the deep end (the deeper layers of his emotional awareness). The Corona crisis has brought this person forcefully to his knees, and without him asking for it, has prompted him to give up his old coping strategies overnight and face all kinds of matters deep inside of him and in therapy.

When life puts its finger on a wound…

A While ago a woman came to me due to a sudden emergence of massive anxiety and panic attacks for the first time in the middle of the Corona crisis, which resurfaced regularly onwards. After several stabilizing sessions she confessed: „I don’t want a suffocating fear to come over me out of nowhere and smother me. Do you know how terrifying it is when your own body does whatever it wants without you having any control over what’s happening to it? When you lose control of your own life? I don’t want to feel that way. It’s almost as if you were dying.“ That was the birth of a conscious and constructive way of handling an ancient existential fear of „life and death“. In the course of the trauma therapy, she had a sudden recollection of having already confronted the issue of „illness and death“ in her childhood over a long period of time. A loved one had been suffering from an auto immune disease with an unfavorable prognosis and was spending her time in different hospitals fighting for life. This person had in fact overcome the disease many years later and still lives today.

However, the experience of many years of powerlessness, loss of control and heavy fear of loss during childhood had been buried deep in the soul of a back then child. Just like many other children, she was too young to be able to grasp rationally what she was experiencing and to ask for proper support. Instead, for many years, she had to helplessly witness and endure an overburdening situation she had absolutely no control over – left alone with her childhood fear of loss, a devastating fear of death and having no control over life. In the middle of the Corona crisis – in times of isolation, heated discussions, economic uncertainty, and ultimately triggered by separation from a long-standing partner- all sorts of painful memories broke out under anxiety and panic. All those childhood fears in her were pushed to the surface. The trauma therapy required a great amount of tact to recover, step by step, a hidden treasure from her countless wounds, a treasure manifasted by way of compassion for herself and a deeper trust in her own life.

Developing compassion and understanding for traumatized people

I am well aware of the fact that the political decisions made in these times of crisis do not provide the needed amount of attention and care for everyone. That’s why it is my personal concern to raise a sense of awareness for compassion and understanding in our society. The aim of this article is to provide insight into the lives of people who have experienced trauma – perhaps one of your neighbors, a family member, or a good friend of yours has been impacted. If you meet someone with a traumatic background in your vicinity, treat them with empathy, if possible with a simple, friendly offer of help, or even just a smile. If you have been affected yourself, seek trauma therapy and be willing to accept support. In addtion to a suggestion box for possible acute interventions, I have provided a list of recommendable and competent crisis and counselling centers and colleagues

in the therapeutic field as well as drop-in points, should there be a serious suspicion of violence against children and adolescents or adults, or in case you have already been a witness to one. This should especiallly raise alert due to an unfortunate increase in domestic violence during the Corona crisis.

What is trauma?

The word trauma dereives from Greek and means wound, injury, or even defeat, describing conditions that have been attested by many trauma survivors. They describe a feeling of their dignity being violated and their existence devalued, which makes them convinced of not being worthy of good things in life. A trauma comes in three phases: shock, impact and recovery. A recovery or regeneration that has not taken place naturally after a traumatic event will lead to a wound and its consequential symptoms. A trauma can be a singular occurence such as for instance in case of a car accident or loss of a loved one. It can also be a developmental trauma, which takes place during the development stages of a young person and is known to recur (regular exposure to violence in any form, neglect of individuals suffering from a chronic mental illness, etc). Traumatic experiences can occur in familial and social environments as well as institutional.

What should I do when I’m feeling out of sorts?

– Make plans that uplift your spirit: Ask yourself what makes you feel good in everyday life? Make a list of the things you like to do, if possible, with the help of friends or relatives. Try to do many of them within the scope of what is allowed in the Corona crisis.

– Talk to friends and loved ones whom you trust about your feelings and ask them to be reachable in case of acutely overwhelming situations (if possible even at night).

– Have a clear idea of who does you good. Make it a priority to spend time with people who are enhancing their own lives and who can be of sincere support.

– Cut back on your contact with those who are currently not doing very well themselves (if possible).

– If you have a limited social network, turn to experience-proven trauma and counselling centers.

– Apply for an Ex-In to assist you (through OHG, the German Victim Assistance Act – and other financial aids)

– If you are in good contact with the neighbors in your building or people in your neighborhood: Be honest and open about asking for help without having to disclose too many personal details (you can open up to them during simple activities such as playing cards, taking walks or watching movies together).

– If you have family members that you mesh with (even if they live far away from you): keep in touch with them regularly, express your own needs (making your current needs a priority and doing what you enjoy), and let them know that you prefer light-hearted communication.

– Do regenerative, rhythmic breathing exercies, which will help you stay in the present and in tune with yourself.

– Learn to analyze early signs of dissociative instances in trauma consultations, and act upon them pre-emptively or immediately by applying neuropsychological exercise.

– Practice regenerative, sensory stimulation activities which will reduce stress levels in your nervous system, and in very simple ways, help you be in touch with your body and the present moment (e.g. concentration exercises in the nature: how many different kinds of birds am I hearing right now? How does the soil smell? How does the cold air feel on my skin?).

– Spend time in the nature.

– Seek competent support: Trauma and crisis centers, trauma therapists, mindful based psychotherapy, humanistic methods of psychotherapy, and all those who see themselves as humans and real survivors and who are there to accompany you on your unique journey through life.