Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Impact of Pandemic Trauma

Trauma, like long-lasting chronic stress, can have long-term impacts.  The pandemic has traumatized all of us, but we are likely to have different experiences depending on our environmental sensitivity.  A study of 906 adults found that 31% were highly-sensitive, 40% were medium-sensitivity, and 29% were resilient to events within our environments. 

Post-traumatic stress (PTS) is a normal and adaptive response to stressful or life-threatening events.  PTS can cause symptoms such as nightmares, memory loss, hyperarousal (being on high alert or startling easily), and avoidance (staying away from certain places, events, or people).

When stress or trauma occurs, the fight-or-flight half of our nervous system is activated.  When it is chronically activated, both our physical and mental well-being is impaired.  The pandemic has caused an increase in irritability, anxiety, depression, and suicide risk.  Many high-achieving people are suffering from memory losses and exhaustion, as well as the struggle to be productive.

A recent episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, What’s Happening in our Nervous Systems? features Tippett’s interview of Clinical Psychologist and Professor Christine Runyan.  Professor Runyan provides a detailed explanation of the nervous system dysregulation caused by the pandemic which some people respond to with increased aggression, rigid thinking, narrower perspective, and an extreme loss of empathy.  She also discusses strategies for returning our nervous systems to equilibrium such as accepting that our responses to the pandemic (such as worrying, numbing, inflexibility, and irritability) are to be expected of humans enduring the social isolation and losses the pandemic has caused.  She encourages activities that invoke comfort and safety.  And she stresses the need to practice compassion for others, but also for ourselves.

Takeaway: To learn more, listen to the 51-minute interview, or read the transcript of, On Being with Krista Tippett, Christine Runyan, What’s Happening in our Nervous Systems?, https://onbeing.org/programs/christine-runyan-whats-happening-in-our-nervous-systems/.

Hat Tip to law student Katie K. for bringing this resource to my attention!

Sources

Philip Tedeschi and Molly Anne Jenkins, Editors, Transforming Trauma: Resilience and Healing Through our Connections with Animals 19 (2019).

Debra S. Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 939-43 (2019) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3374006.

On Being with Krista Tippett, Christine Runyan, What’s Happening in our Nervous Systems?, Mar 18, 2021, https://onbeing.org/programs/christine-runyan-whats-happening-in-our-nervous-systems/.

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