Christine MacInnis, LMFT
Why That Vaccine Outburst is Not Anger; It's Trauma
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Maybe you've been a victim of it while at your local grocery store. If you are a social media user, you have definitely noticed it on Twitter, Facebook or even your local Next-door group. We certainly cannot avoid it if we turn on the TV because according to news outlets it has invaded our transportation systems, school board meetings, and work places. I am talking about socially inappropriate public outbursts, or as I like to call them, Covid-specific trauma responses.
Due to virus related fears and issues of control, I have noticed this type of response is specific to both vaccines and mask use. It has started wars between family members and ended long term friendships. Families have started groups to form walk outs over mask and vaccine mandates at our schools. On social media, people call each other trolls or sheep depending on what side of the fence they fall on. Adults have had such strong reaction to being told to wear a mask on an aircraft that they have punched airline personnel in the face and had planes returned to the terminal. I have witnessed even older adults get into arguments over who is standing too close to them at the post office. Like many, I have found my own blood pressure start rise and anger start to bubble over when somone nearby is unmasked and coughing, something I wouldn't have even noticed two years ago.
Everyone thinks their argument is correct and that science should be the main factor, but even medical professionals and data are held with skepticism over whether vaccines are safe and if wearing a mask provides protection. What is interesting is that this is not about vaccine safety or mask wearing at all. It is about trying to control a trauma response. What do I mean about that?
When the pandemic hit over a year and a half ago, for all of us, it was a situation that was completely out of our control. We had little clear leadership and guidance from the beginning on what was safe or not safe to do. To create our own safe spaces, each person created their own rules of how to fuction and what to do during the unknown early days. Distrust starting forming as mixed messages were being delivered through our politicians, news media and even our own CDC. Many of us coped by following the latest guidelines and trusting the scientific community. But for those who have suffered medical trauma in the past, had an adverse reaction to a medication or a vaccine, or just felt a sense of unease over a lack of clear guidance from the start of the pandemic, started forming their own defenses and opinions. In a situation that was completely uncontrollable, they created their own sense of determination and decision making. Any time one’s belief system is threatened, you may see the outburst behavior occur as a form of maladaptive self protection.
So what exactly is a trauma response? Everyone has probably already heard of the flight/fight response our bodies produce to offset outside attacks both physical and psychological. But usually these situations are brief and contained. Most of us can shrug them off and it doesn't lead to extended harm. However the trauma of the pandemic is so severe because it was an event we never experienced, we all believed our lives were under threat, it was prolonged with no ending in sight which increases fear and it was happening to all of us at once. This limits supports from those who were not suffering from it's effects.
These outbursts we now see are our physiological and psychological responses to this trauma. For many they are unpredictable and can start over an innocent discussion of how to tackle the virus. The anger is strong, powerful and overwhelming to the person experiencing it. They may not even understand why they are so angry or out of control. It scary to both the individual and the person on the receiving end.
So what can we do if we notice we are having regular trauma responses to our environment right now?. Avoid social media and spaces where you can be easily triggered. Create safe spaces. Set up outdoor coffee dates or safe forms of interacting to reduce feelings of isolation. Soothe your nervous system. Regular meditation and deep breathing techniques have been shown to reduce trauma responses in individuals who suffer from a severe trauma response, PTSD. Apps like Calm and Headspace will get you started. And most importantly, if these suggestions do not provide relief, seek support from a trained professional. Intensive trauma informed work like EMDR can provide relief from the symptoms as the therapist works with you to heal your brain from the trauma that is not processing naturally through the use of bi-lateral stimulation. Other interventions that help support trauma work are Brainspotting, Internal Family Systems (IFS), and Somatic Experiencing.
We may not be over the pandemic but we can start to collectively heal from the trauma it has created. We also can start recognizing this response in others and control our reactions to them. Next time you are tempted to yell at your neighbor for refusing to vaccinate her twelve year old, remember they are doing the best they can too. We may not agree but we can treat each other with kindness over this extraodinary event we are all just trying to survive.