COVID-19 and Coping With Superimposed Traumas

Cassondra Feldman, PsyD

December 21, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

While 2022 is lurking around the corner, many of us still have 2020 on our minds. Social media posts are already emerging: "No new years resolutions. It is the circumstances turn to improve [sic]," one post declares. Others proclaim that it is difficult coming to terms with the idea that 2022 is actually pronounced "2020 too." A critical difference exists between then and now – we have experienced months of living in limbo and rolling with the punches of pandemic life.

In some ways, it has become easy to think of the early pandemic days as a distant memory, yet respect that the impact of 2020 has been indelible for virtually all of us and feels palpable as if it were yesterday.

The year 2020 was marked by the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was accompanied by extreme uncertainty, loss of all kinds, and emotional turmoil. The early pandemic had a profound economic and social impact, with added stress tethered to political and race-related division in America that created divides among families and friends, and yielded ceaseless discourse related to divergent perspectives. This only exacerbated the stress that came with the pandemic, given that providing support and leaning on one another was more important than ever. All of this was compounded by natural disasters that have plagued the country.

So much was unprecedented. There was a collective sense of feeling "worn down," and the burnout that was felt was quite profound. Enormous amounts of mental and physical effort were allocated to simply surviving, getting basic needs met, having enough food and supplies, and completing basic tasks. Ordinary relating felt taxing. At this stage of the pandemic, the COVID-19 experience can be conceived of as a traumatic stressor capable of eliciting a traumatic response and exacerbating other mental health symptoms. Our capacity to cope has been diminished. Anxiety rates have soared, as have rates of clinical depression. Those most affected have had lower household incomes, are unmarried, and have experienced pandemic-related stressors. The links between the impact of the pandemic on mental health have been clear.

The pandemic has forced the landscape of social support to dramatically change. Initially, we felt pulled to connect and we leaned into the use of virtual platforms to connect for all matters (simple social gatherings, big birthday events, family reunions, celebration of holidays, work duties, and academic work). However, "Zoom fatigue" began to set in, and our screen time was maxed out. There has been the added dynamic of frontline workers who did not have the option to work virtually or from home. This group largely has felt disconnected from others who didn't understand the depth of their anxiety and loneliness of their experience. Health care workers have had to make challenging, life-and-death, patient-related decisions that called into question personal morals and ethics all while their own lives were at risk.

Fast-forward to the present, and support systems have either strengthened or worn down – which has yielded a unique dichotomy. Maintaining friendships has either felt of utmost importance given the impact of the disconnect and physical distance or has felt challenging given the mental energy expended from working and connecting virtually. Empathy burnout is also a real and important facet in the equation. We begin to ask the question: Are we checking in with others in the spirit of authentic relating, to cultivate real connection, or to check a box?

Impact of Layered Traumas

It is interesting to think about the pandemic's traumatic impact being "superimposed" on top of the "ordinary traumas" experienced outside of the pandemic. We are essentially at the 2-year mark, in some ways have cultivated a sense of resilience and found ways to adapt, and in other ways at times feel right back where we were in early 2020. There were moments that felt hopeful, glimmers of normalcy, and setbacks that all ebbed and flowed – but even so, there have not been many "mental breaks," only temporary and transient reprieves. Some got sick and died; some recovered; and others are still experiencing long-hauler syndrome and have lingering sequelae. Despite adaptation and resilience, one can't help but wonder the impact of superimposed traumas on top of this collective trauma. Many of us have not even rebounded from the pandemic, and then are faced with loss, grief, challenges, illness, hard and big life decisions. We are challenged to answer the question: How do we endure in the face of this trauma inception?

It has been a challenging time for all, including those who are ordinarily happy-go-lucky, resilient, and see the glass half-full and are struggling with the idea of struggling. I am no "resilience expert" but gleaned much wisdom from responding to the Surfside, Fla., building collapse. This was a collective trauma that took place in the summer of 2021, and the wisdom of this event highlighted the value of collective healing and unification even in spite of the times. What happened in Surfside was a shock, and the loss was felt by those directly affected, the surrounding community, and those who were part of the disaster response efforts. All of those parties had been processing losses prior to this – loss of normalcy because of the pandemic, loss of people we loved as a result, other personal losses – and this community tragedy was yet another loss to disentangle on top of a period in U.S. history demarcated by a great lack of unity, divisiveness, anger, and hatred. The collapse highlighted the small size yet interconnectedness of the community and the power of connection and authentic relating. It was overwhelming in the moment but extremely heartening and beautiful to see the amount of willingness to drop everything and help. Despite feeling worn down from the pandemic, people drew upon their internal resources, natural goodness, and kindness "reserves" to provide support.

Responding to the collapse highlighted that resilience in the context of collective trauma requires flexibility, embracing uncertainty, cultivating unity, and paying attention to meeting basic needs/self-care. The role of kindness cannot be overemphasized. In the realm of reflecting on the notion of kindness, it is worth noting how much power there is to bearing witness to someone's experience, especially when they are in pain. Sometimes there are no words, nothing "to do," no solution to offer other than just "being," which can be enough. People often diminish the role or at the very least do not recognize the power of showing up for someone and just listening. Pandemic resilience, and coping with coalescing traumas, is likely composed of these same facets that were essential in the context of coping with the collapse.

It is not only the immediate impact of a trauma as much as the aftermath that needs to processed and worked through. In one sense, people feel that they should be adjusted to and accustomed to this new reality, and at the same time, one has to remember and reflect on how unnatural this experience has been. There is an impact of a cumulative onslaught of negative events, and it is hard to imagine not being phased, remaining unchanged, or not feeling affected. We may feel hardened and that there are limits to the compassion we have to offer others. We may be feel empathic. There can be desensitization and an apathy to others' suffering when our patience is worn down and we have limited bandwidth. There are data to support the idea that a level of habituation occurs to individuals who experience multiple traumas, which yields a level of "sensitization" to the negative impact of subsequent events. It becomes easy to make comparisons of suffering. The challenge will be to rise above these and make a conscious effort to connect with who and how we were before we were worn down.

I am still in awe about how much I learned from the victims' families, survivors, and my colleagues at Surfside – about pain, suffering, loss, resilience, coping, fortitude, and meaning making. We were all forced to think beyond ourselves, show up for others, and unify in a way that remedied this period of fragmentation. With respect to the pandemic and "where we are at now," some elements of our lives are stabilizing; other aspects feel volatile from the fatigue of what we have been experiencing. This pandemic has not fully abated, but we can find some clarity in the value of setting boundaries and knowing our limits – but not overlooking the power of unity and kindness and the value of the reciprocating those qualities.

Feldman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Miami. She is an adjunct professor in the college of psychology at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she teaches clinical psychology doctoral students. She also serves on the board of directors of the Southeast Florida Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology. Feldman has no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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