Coping Styles in the Time of Crisis

How prior trauma can affect the way you cope with the Coronavirus crisis.

A coping style is a typical manner of confronting a stressful situation and dealing with it. There are various ways that people cope in times of crisis and there have been many studies about coping styles. For example (Endler 1997) postulated that there are three basic coping styles: task-oriented, emotion-oriented, and avoidance-oriented.

But there is another issue concerning coping styles that we don’t hear too much about. This issue involves taking a closer look at how people who have a history of trauma react to a current crisis. These individuals tend to fall on the extreme ends of a continuum. The fact is, some of us seem to be at our strongest when facing a crisis, while others tend to fall apart.

The first type of person is the one who takes charge, the one who can be relied on to step up to organize things and take care of others. Others tend to rely on this type of person for guidance and stability.

The second type tends to fall apart in a crisis. They become immobilized or have a panic attack. They often become so paralyzed in fear, become so numb, or become so dissociated that they have a difficult time taking action. Because of this, they often rely on the strongest among us for stability and strength because they have a difficult time finding it in themselves.

Both types of people need to be appreciated and both need compassion—from others and themselves. The truth is, those who are seemingly the strong ones—the leaders and caretakers—often ignore their own needs and feelings and can also fall apart—usually in the privacy of their own home. And those who become immobilized in fear can also be strong if given the chance. We are all both strong and weak, leaders and followers, caretakers and those who need to be cared for.

For example, those who were traumatized as a child or adolescent often suffer from PTSD. PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder with characteristic symptoms that develop after the experience of an extremely traumatic stressor. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached and estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life. PTSD is marked by clear biological changes as well as psychological symptoms.

Those suffering from PTSD are often triggered by a current crisis. To be triggered is to have an intense emotional or physical reaction, after encountering a trigger. Triggers are anything that remind someone of a previous trauma. The emotional reaction can be fear, sadness, pain, flashbacks, as well as any physical symptoms associated with these emotions (shaking, fainting, fatigue). More times than not, being triggered can cause an all-encompassing panic that spreads through their entire body. Sometimes it goes away in seconds; at other times, it lingers for weeks, making it difficult to function normally until their mind reaches equilibrium again.

While we tend to think about PTSD being characterized by the above, previous trauma and/or PTSD can also create a tendency to deny, avoid or hide from our own feelings by focusing on the feelings and needs of others. These people are so acclimated to trauma that they are seemingly impervious to pain. They become the crisis managers, the rescuers, the comforters of others. But as shut down as they are, it doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering just like everyone else. They often cope by excessive use of alcohol or drug consumption and they often fall apart once the crisis is over, often when no one else is around to comfort them.

On the other hand, those who fall apart in a crisis are often stronger than they think they are. Yes, they have likely been triggered and may have a difficult time separating the present crisis from their past trauma. Let them know that it is understandable that they would have such a reaction.

This kind of compassion can help more than you can imagine. If they are not pushed and not judged, they can often regain their composure, especially if they practice grounding, deep breathing, and other mindfulness techniques (see my current post on Psychology Today entitled “Coping With the Coronavirus With Mindfulness and Compassion.” Once they are grounded and back into the present, they can often reconnect with their strength, sense of agency and competency. When this occurs, don’t continue to treat them as if they are helpless. In fact, assume they can take an active role in alleviating the stress of others since they are often far more empathetic and compassionate than the average person.

In this difficult time, we need to realize and remember the following:

  • We need to be aware that the way an individual reacts to stress or crisis is often based on their personal history, possibly a history of trauma.
  • We need to have compassion for people coming from either extreme.
  • We need to have compassion for those who seem to fall apart and become helpless by reminding ourselves that their reaction is “understandable” due to the trauma they experienced in the past.
  • We also need to have compassion for the seemingly invincible leader or caretaker. Remember that no matter how “together” and invincible they appear to be, underneath all their strength lies a human with the same needs as everyone else. Give them a hug, make them a comforting meal. Tell them it is okay if they need to fall apart at times. Tell them you appreciate their strength but that you want to be strong for them now.
  • Caretakers and crisis managers need to be encouraged to practice self-care and allow themselves to get in touch with their own feelings and needs.
  • When a person has been triggered it can be helpful to do any of the following: 1) don’t dismiss their feelings or reactions, 2) set aside your judgments about what you may consider to be “overreacting,” 3) let them talk through their panic, 4) if the person is okay with touch you can hug them, hold their hand, simply sit next to them, or let them cry on your shoulder, 5) encourage the person to distract themselves by watching comedy movies; doing puzzles or word games, etc. as opposed to endlessly watching the news.