Update: The South Southwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, a training and technical assistance entity at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health, just published a resource on “Supportive Practices for Mental Health Professionals During Pandemic-Related Social Distancing.“
At this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of the coronavirus. The virus, which was first identified as public health emergency by the World Health Organization in late January, had its first case in Texas confirmed last week.
The Center for Disease Control has extensively covered the cut-and-dry medical considerations of the outbreak. But what about other the dimensions of the virus? Namely, what can we do as a community to practice emotional resiliency during this period of high anxiety and unpredictability, while still being respectful of the people around us?
Building Community Resilience
For everyone, the idea of an outbreak of a dangerous illness on our home soil can be anxiety-inducing. For those with a traumatic experience in their backgrounds (which, as it turns out, is most of us), the buzz surrounding coronavirus can add another overwhelming layer of stress to their lives. However, whether you or those around you have experienced a traumatic event or not, we can all benefit from integrating a more trauma-informed response in our lives right now.
Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) is generally thought of as an approach used in clinical settings that seeks to recognize symptoms and behaviors as coping mechanisms for addressing trauma. It is described by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as the principles of safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration, empowerment, and cultural sensitivity.
But being trauma-informed and healing-centered is something that goes beyond the doctor’s office. These principles can be practically applied across various experiences and environments, especially during a public health emergency such as the one we are in right now.
For individuals who have experienced trauma (which is traditionally defined as having had an exposure to a potentially life-threatening event or witnessing something that was emotionally harmful), the lack of control, uncertainty, and feelings of powerlessness during the outbreak are particularly difficult.
Using a trauma-informed and healing-centered perspective, we recommend you consider the following suggestions when addressing the stress you may be feeling about reports of the coronavirus.
1. Ground yourself in what you can control
- Engage in physical activity
- Stay in contact with your network of family and friends
- Practice good sleep hygiene
- Maintain a healthy work-life balance
2. Educate yourself about the signs and symptoms, but;
3. Avoid overwhelming yourself with research
- It can be tempting to feel like researching as much as you can about the outbreak can help you be prepare, but there is a threshold at which over-information increases anxiety.
4. Practice self-compassion
- As UT self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff recommends, acknowledge that this situation feels really difficult right now, and explore how you can comfort and care for yourself in this moment.
5. Meet yourself where you are
- It’s natural to be afraid of a virus that you can’t control or predict. It’s okay to be frightened. It’s important to normalize those feelings and realize you aren’t alone in your fears.
Most of all, it’s important to remember that emotions and reactions are a natural part of the human experience to have around an event like this. But it is equally important to recognize that you are in control of how you reframe your experience and choose to respond.
Fear or Discrimination
The other important dimension we must recognize and actively condemn are the incidents of discrimination towards individuals from the countries where the virus is originating, or towards those who have been in close contact with one of the countries. It is expected that the initial reactions to an outbreak are concerns about your own health and safety. But we also have to consider how this event affects everyone – not just ourselves.
This is a particularly important aspect of the outbreak for the University of Texas at Austin, where there are staff, faculty, and students who have family members in countries where incidents of the virus are high. We want to recognize that it may be even more difficult for these members of the UT Austin community to practice the tips given above if they feel they must suffer silently to avoid exclusion or discrimination.
We would advise those affected either directly or indirectly to feel empowered to ask for what they need from their colleagues and coworkers, such as the time to communicate with loved ones abroad, and for the UT Austin community as a whole to foster a response that is respectful and responsive to those needs.
The bottom line is that it is never an acceptable response to discriminate against individuals, even if that discrimination is born from a hypervigilance exacerbated by one’s own history. You may catch yourself having thoughts about specific groups in relation to the coronavirus, but those generalizations do not help anyone and do not build the community resilience necessary to thrive. They don’t help the individuals being discriminated against, and they won’t help you stay well.
Remember, as we ride out the wave of the coronavirus outbreak, the only thing you can control is your actions. By implementing the guiding principles of Trauma-Informed Care and by being a healing-centered, resilient community, we can keep ourselves balanced and healthy, while also respecting the journeys and experiences of the others around us who may be affected, too.
Edited by: Nadia Kalinchuk, senior field trainer analyst and trauma expert in the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health.