Can the Coronavirus Threat Be Experienced As Traumatic by Children and Adults?

Can the Coronavirus Threat Be Experienced As Traumatic by Children and Adults?

Karen Gross 02/03/2020 7
Coronavirus Trauma

The title to this post raises a question and my answer is simple, though not universal: yes. To understand the impact of the threat of one getting or one’s loved one’s getting the coronavirus and a variety of other activities or inactivities related to it, we need to recognize the meaning of trauma.

In my forthcoming book on trauma within the educational landscape, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door (TCPress June 2020), I define trauma in the context of education (the subject of the book). But, the definition in this book can be expanded and its applicability made more universal.

In sum, trauma can be defined as a psychologically distressing experience (of omission or commission) that has the probability of negatively impacting an individual’s learning, psycho-social well being and health. When that experience generates symptomology, then we need to sit up and pay close attention. And we need to respond. Not all trauma is experienced in the same way by individuals and for some folks, trauma symptomology does not occur.

Now let’s turn to the coronavirus and the rhetoric, reporting and social media response to it.

The threat of the coronavirus is distressing on many levels to many individuals, families and communities. It can impact how we talk, behave, respond and feel. I worry about this virus being seen as a political pawn or tool; wishing millions to die to change the political balance of power is offensive and dangerous. And, remember when HIV became or was political?

The threat of the coronavirus can impact whether we travel to homes and businesses of those from countries where the virus originated or spread. Depending on one’s personal background and life experience, the threat of the virus can raise issues such as our likelihood of becoming ill, the likelihood of being quarantined or having those we love being quarantined. There is the possibility of events or travel being restricted or cancelled. Some athletic events may be conducted without fans. Travel restrictions are expanding and people are wearing masks not just on airplanes but in their day-to-day lives. Have you ever stared at or avoided someone with a mask? At Houses of Worship, congregants are not shaking hands; they are touching fists or elbows. And for those interested in the financial markets, we are seeing real concern about the economic impact of the coronavirus.

These behaviors and actions matter and they are big deal. Some are asking why we are so focused on a risk that seems relatively remote in the US. Shouldn’t we all just “calm down” as some commentators and politicians and leaders suggest?

Here’s why we need to pay attention and not create a false sense of calm. The threat of illness (the gravity of which is unknown), the real possibility of quarantine, actual restrictions on travel, the threat to the well-being (employment; economic strength) of those we care about: these are all reasons for children and adults to be more than worried. They may actually experience trauma and be traumatized by the threat of getting coronavirus as distinguished from actually becoming ill in the near term. And pretending these issues are NOT real or serious is seriously flawed.

Here’s my point: the grand scale rhetoric about the virus, the maps showing deaths, the concerns about its being a political ploy, our efforts to develop a vaccine rapidly, our political and misplaced blame of cause and effect and our limping forward to a strategic and systematic strategy are all threatening at one level or another. People get scared. And, if a virus is scary, so is fear. And fear can spread like a virus.

It is not enough to tell people to calm down when everything one reads, sees and hears and experiences is NOT calming. In fact, have you every tried to tell someone who is scared to just stop being scared or to tell someone who is anxious to just relax? It doesn’t work.

Here’s what matters: stability, structure, safety, subtlety (personalization) and someone (who cares) — the five S’s. These are antidotes, as developed in my new book, to address trauma. Yet, everything we are doing now, is the opposite: some are dismissing the seriousness of the virus, some are misstating the truth about the speed with which we can get a vaccine, we are cutting off whole nations (including nations in which some US Citizens live), we are seeing lack of consistency in the words spoken by government officials and experts.

None of this is promoting stability, structure, safety, subtlety and someone.

I write this post as a cautionary message. How we message about the coronavirus in the near and longer term matters. Whatever happens with the virus and its spread and its cure needs to be spoken about and handled in ways that promote the 5 S’s. Panic, trauma, fear: these aren’t good for anyone and they make problems worse. So, I write to signal the need for all of us to think well and carefully about how we communicate about the coronavirus. It matters. For real.

Note: My new book addresses these issues in the context of education. And it provides concrete strategies that can help students and educators. It can be pre-ordered here. I wish it could be published even sooner. We need it.

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  • Simon Wall

    The coronavirus outbreak continues to rise in the world.

  • Jason Trevellick

    Take care of yourself y’all, make sure you're safe when you are in public.

  • Stephen Clark

    This is just the beginning. Pretty soon we are going to look like China.

  • Alan Ward

    People are still getting the virus and scientists do not know how it's being transmitted

  • Danielle Johnson

    Thoughts and prayers for the victims

  • Rob Millard

    I have no issues with staying calm

  • Claire Fenner

    I swear to god if we have school tomorrow and I get the virus...

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


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