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Trauma During COVID-19, and Its Effects on Intimate Relationships


Written Exclusively for It's Over Easy by By Meghan Marcum, PsyD., Chief Psychologist at A Better Life Recovery / A Mission for Michael

The topics of stress, anxiety and trauma have been on everyone’s mind at some point in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus. 

Over the past several months the United States and the world have endured endless news stories about loss of lives, financial hardship and other significant changes to our daily lives. Trauma affects people differently and for some the outcome has led to traumatic effects.

Taking a closer look at trauma means identifying the events that have led to feelings of discomfort. There are the more easily recognized triggers for trauma that follow grief or the unexpected loss of a loved one. Since the start of the pandemic we have witnessed either directly or through the media the staggering number of lives lost coupled with not having an opportunity to visit our loved ones at the hospital or grieve in traditional ways. For healthcare workers, first responders and employees deemed “essential” there is the stress that comes with being in danger of contracting or passing the virus.

The Chronic Stress of COVID-19

The ongoing effects of the coronavirus have left many people feeling anxious, afraid and uncertain about the future. We have endured countless changes to our daily lives including stay-at-home orders, social distancing, dealing with childcare issues, wearing a mask in public places and the devastating financial and employment losses have meant serious disruptions to our daily routine. For some, the weight of these consequences can be considered traumatic. We as human beings have a finite capacity for dealing with stress and uncertainty. Once that limit has been reached people begin to have difficulty coping which often becomes evident in our relationships.

When people are faced with chronic stress like many of us are today it invariably starts to take a toll on our relationships. Stress makes it more difficult for us to be emotionally present because we tend to be caught up in our own thoughts and less aware of what others might need from us. Additionally, we tend to be more irritable when we’re stressed out, we don’t sleep as well and in turn, it has an effect on our mental health. That means our relationships will suffer as well due to the effects of chronic stress and anxiety. These changes are likely to occur slowly over time which can make them difficult to detect early.

If you are wondering if your relationship has been impacted by the recent stress or trauma from the pandemic it may be helpful to consider the following questions. How is your relationship going compared to this time last year? How does your partner offer you emotional support? In what ways do you make an effort to support your partner’s emotional needs? If you’re not sure how to answer these questions it may be a good time to start working with your partner on what steps you can take to support each other given this is a time of high stress.

Signs to Look for

If you begin to notice more drastic changes in yourself or your partner, it can help to take a look at whether or not those changes may be a result of trauma. If you can’t seem to shake the thoughts or memories about something that’s happened to you, that’s a good sign it might be time to talk to a professional. If your partner has started drinking more or using substances or perhaps seems distant and emotionless in ways that are different than how they behaved before the pandemic, it may be time for them to consider having a mental health evaluation.

The silver lining is there are ways to treat these issues. Anxiety, trauma and chronic stress can be successfully treated within the context of psychotherapy. Relationships require work and that means taking time to address our issues in order to maintain a healthy partnership.

It’s also important to note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will go on to display symptoms of trauma or require psychological treatment. A good support system can help dampen some of the effects of trauma. This is why our partners and loved ones are critical to our mental health. For others, the effects can be severe and long lasting. If your relationship has been damaged as a result of stress or trauma, you are not alone and there is help.

Couples in Pandemic Overload

For the couples who are experiencing challenges right now there are steps you can take to improve the quality of your relationship. Remember to make time for each other, nurture your relationship and do your best to keep your stress levels down. First, do more than listen, be understanding. Your partner may have different sources of stress than you and it can be difficult to empathize when you don’t share the same experiences. Spend quality time together. Take a walk with your partner, eat dinner without electronics (TV, cell phone) and remember to find the humor in life. Finally, make it a priority to find ways to relax and destress throughout the day. When people feel calm and relaxed they communicate and problem solve with much better outcomes.

Research shows many relationships are experiencing increased levels of tension due to issues surrounding the coronavirus and these sources of stress will invariably impact relationships. If your relationship is struggling, there are countless benefits to working with a mental health professional especially after a series of major life changes. Your relationship doesn’t need to be on the brink of collapse before seeking help. I would encourage anyone who is struggling with their intimate relationship to strongly consider the support that can be provided by working with a therapist or mental health professional.

About the Author:

Dr. Meghan Marcum is an addiction and mental health specialist who serves as Chief Clinical Officer of A Better Life Recovery in San Juan Capistrano, California. Dr. Marcum’s role is to ensure the highest standard of clinical care for each client. Dr. Marcum earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Arizona State University and a doctorate in clinical psychology from The American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. She completed her pre and post-doctoral training in the specialty field of chemical dependency.

Additionally, Dr. Marcum achieved specialized training in treating traumatic disorders with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Dr. Marcum previously worked in the Neurosciences Institute at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California where she continues to hold full privileges. She has developed an interest in helping those with co-occurring disorders by examining substance abuse as it relates to neurological changes over the course of the illness.

For more information about Dr. Marcum, please click here.