Q&A with a Therapist: Trauma and Mental Health during a Crisis like Coronavirus

Right now, the world can feel like a scary place due to the coronavirus public health crisis. This may be especially true if you are experiencing poverty, have low-income, or if this crisis is bringing up past traumas. For some, like domestic violence survivors, being cooped up with an abusive partner can become a safety concern. For immigrants, there can be added struggle as they are left out of some much-needed safety nets and resource.

Many of NYLAG’s clients have these experiences. We know that when a crisis like this happens, there is an increased need for free legal support around issues of eviction, foreclosure, employment, and benefit claims. As we help individuals with these need, and the influx that is to come, we know those asking for our help are full people with complex lives.

That is why we spoke with psychotherapist and trauma-therapist Natalie Y Gutierrez, LMFT to offer some added support and understanding around themes of trauma, mental health, safety, and resilience during this crisis.

Natalie Gutierrez holds a purple sign that reads "#IamCredible"
Natalie Y. Gutierrez, LMFT, participated in NYLAG’s #IamCredible campaign last October

Many of our clients are survivors of trauma (e.g. abuse survivors, veterans). This crisis can be triggering. Can you explain why a seemingly unrelated crisis can trigger past traumas?

NATALIE: These times of uncertainty can throw all survivors of trauma into an activated and stressed autonomic nervous system because of the emotional triggers involved- loss of control, unpredictability, anticipatory grief and loss, alongside being forced to slow down and face any unresolved past traumas.

This crisis reminds us of how delicate human life is, and has us confront the fears we might have around our mortality and that of others.

How can people cope and manage triggers?

NATALIE: In such emotionally difficult times, it’s vital to maintain a felt sense of safety in our bodies. When we are indulging in frightening news on social media and not allowing ourselves to have a break, we are most likely living in a prolonged state of anxiety and threat response. Our hearts are probably beating faster, our blood pressure rising, our jaws clenching, and our muscles tense.

Deactivating this threat response in our bodies is of utmost importance. We can begin to do this by practicing deep belly breaths. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7, and exhale slowly and steadily for 8 seconds. Check in with your body often for tension. When you notice tension, breathe and release it from your body.

Avoid prolonged exposure to the media and watch in moderation. Journal, take breaks, read a book, and stay connected to your loved ones. Physical distancing doesn’t have to impede emotional connections with others. Our nervous system depends on social connection for survival and thriving.

For domestic violence and other abuse survivors where being quarantined with their abusive partner can be unsafe, what can they do to be safer?

NATALIE: People that are currently finding themselves in unsafe situations, quarantined with perpetrators of violence, will unfortunately find themselves engaging more in harm reduction strategies and will be living utilizing survival/coping skills. They are living their lives moment to moment, in an activated threat response.

Survivors that are finding themselves in this, need to take a moment to also self-regulate their bodies through breath. They may not be able to remove themselves from this abusive situation right now, but in the meantime can try to give themselves a safe body while navigating their own home crisis. I’d also urge survivors to have a safety plan and an emergency bag with the most important documents hidden in the event they need to escape.

Survivors can also reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline:

  • Call 1800-799-7233
  • TTY1800-787-3224 (Spanish available)
  • CHAT at thehotline.org
  • Text LOVEIS to 22522

For legal help, learn about NYLAG’s Domestic Violence Law Unit’s services.

This crisis is impacting immigrants very hard as many have lost their jobs, but have fewer resources at their disposal. For example, they don’t qualify for the recent Stimulus stipend. What would you tell someone who feels like they are losing everything right now and are scared for their future?

NATALIE: I would tell them that they have every right to feel hurt, sad, angry, and any feelings that are coming up for them.They have the right to assistance and given that this country was built and relies on immigrants, they cannot and should not be forgotten.

Immigrants do so much for us and our economy, to be left alone during this time is inhumane and a violation of our values as a people. For people with privilege, I would recommend at this time donating directly to immigrants and organizations assisting those struggling the most. It is no secret that there are disparities in treatment and who will be most negatively impacted with this pandemic. Consider how we, as people with more privilege, can help these families during this time.

As for these families, I’d remind them-you’re not alone even if this current administration makes you feel this way. That your resilience is immeasurable and you’ve already proven yourself to preserve with all you’ve experienced before this. You will overcome this too. You are not forgotten.

For legal help, learn about NYLAG’s Immigrant Protection Unit’s services.

Poverty is systemic. We’re seeing that with this crisis. Many people are losing income and falling behind not because they aren’t working hard, but because of factors beyond their control. But poverty is also traumatic. Can you explain?

NATALIE: Poverty is trauma. People in poverty are living their daily lives in an activated perceived threat response, a fight/flight state. Their minds are consciously/unconsciously ruminating over the next meal, money for rent, car insurance, food for their families. There’s a sense of feeling left behind, dismissed, uncared for. You have less choices of whether or not you can work from home- this all can elicit a sense of powerlessness and helplessness and internalized messaging of unworthiness.

Trauma is not only referred to single incident trauma, but to prolonged stress where people are unable to neutralize threat and feel helpless and immobilized. With poverty comes less resources, less help, and more hopelessness at times.

Many of our clients also experience compounded trauma due to the intersectional identities of many clients – poverty and LGBTQ, poverty and xenophobia, poverty, black and woman, poverty and domestic violence survivor, etc. How may this show up during this crisis?

NATALIE: This shows up in all areas- during crisis and without. All oppressed groups continue to suffer during this crisis disproportionately- particularly immigrants, LGBTQI+, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Past traumas within these communities may resurface, there may be rising anxiety and panic due to physical distancing and feeling less connected to community. It’s incredibly important that we stay connected in community, especially as people that already feel isolated by systems.

If someone is struggling right now with feelings of depression or anxiety, what would you tell them?

NATALIE: Please know that while things may seem uncertain at this time, that you have proven yourself to be powerful and can get through this too.

Rest your spirit, be still, do things slower and more mindfully. Check in with yourself about what you need during this time- regulate your media intake, hold onto hope- don’t surrender it.

Breathe deeply. Stretch. Practice grounding exercises using your senses. Ask yourself- who do you want to be in the moment of crisis? How can you be more of this?

We see it all the time: our clients are dealing with many challenges, but they are resilient. Can you speak about resilience in a time like this?

NATALIE: Resilience is something that is ingrained in us from our elders and ancestors. I have seen so much resilience in the people that have had the least and have struggled the most. When people look at all they’ve endured earlier in life, these past experiences are testimonies of strength and perseverance.

Resilience is courage. It often isn’t the loud confidence, but more the whisper that no matter what happens- you can make it through. Our resilience is something passed down throughout generations and a reminder that we’re truly not alone.

Our life is proof that our ancestors were resilient. We are here because they overcame. Resilience runs through our DNA. We can make it through this too, maybe not unscathed, but still courageous.

Natalie has a popular Instagram account where she shares tips and resources on trauma and mental health. You can follow on Instagram @nataliegutierrezlmft.

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