The Traumatic Stress Institute fosters the transformation of organizations and service systems to trauma-informed care (TIC) through the delivery of whole-system consultation, professional training, coaching, and research.

Developing Compassion from COVID-19

June 3, 2020 / by Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW

Day-to-day life was altered so swiftly and thoroughly as a result of COVID-19—a collective whiplash. As a result, many may feel frustrated, lonely, or are mourning the way things changed and the normal activities we are now unable to do. We may be saddened by losing loved ones or by being unable to visit them. But we may also be finding some sources of joy or re-calibration within this time.

One opportunity for re-calibration lies in developing compassion for our clients, who often have lived with a constant, long-term sense of danger. We, too, have now experienced what life is like with a sense of threat surrounding us. This gives us a natural laboratory:

Think about your latest visit to the grocery store in this time of crisis. How did you feel in the store? What happened in your body? How is this different from when you went grocery shopping before the crisis, when buying food felt innocuous?

Now imagine a stranger started to approach you in the store. How would you feel? What would happen in your body? How might you react?

If you’re like most people grocery shopping in this time of COVID-19, you experience a sense of danger. You are extra-alert and are constantly taking steps to reduce your risk; you wear a mask, you sanitize surfaces, you avoid contact with others.  If someone comes too close to you, you experience it as a threat. You might respond rudely or angrily, telling them to stay away from you.

Consider the fact that most of us have reached this high level of anxiety in just two short months. Most of us have not even been hurt individually; we feel this fear because of what we have been told.

Imagine if someone popped into the grocery store and did not know about the virus (how that could be I do not know!). They would think people were acting very strangely. They’d be thinking, “Why the masks, why the obsession with cleaning surfaces?” If this stranger came up to you to ask you what is going on, she would be astonished by an angry, harsh response to get away from you; she might conclude that you must be a disturbed person.

Yet, for someone who knows what is going on in our world, all our reactions make total and complete sense.

Our clients have grown up in situations of real danger—not just for two months, but for years. In exactly the same way that your behavior in the grocery store makes sense given your life circumstances, their behavior makes sense given theirs.

Now think about what you would need in order to make you feel more relaxed at the store. Perhaps some signals from those around you and those you trust that things are safer now, or more familiarity with the changes in the store environment, or a sense that others feel safe in the store. And you would need to have lived safely yourself for a fairly long period of time. You would probably want to talk over your experiences with a few trusted people. This is also what our clients need.

Let’s use this time to observe our own reactions to experiencing our environments and other people as dangerous. Notice your body. Notice your actions. And then, use these observations to develop greater compassion for those you work with—those who have experienced a lifetime of danger.

Tags: Crisis Response

Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW

Written by Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW

Patricia D. Wilcox, LCSW, is Vice President of Strategic Development at Klingberg Family Centers and specializes in treatment of traumatized children and their families. She created the Restorative Approach™ , a trauma- and relationship-based treatment method. She is also a Faculty Trainer for Risking Connection® and an Adjunct Faculty at both the University of CT School of Social Work and St. Joseph’s University. She travels nationally to train treaters on trauma-informed care, specializing in improving the daily life of treatment programs.