Julia Vaughan Smith

‘The trauma’ of Covid-19 and concerns about mental health

I am sorry to start this blog by being pedantic. Covid-19 isn’t a trauma, circumstances never are. The trauma, as many of you will know, is the lasting impact on our neuro-physiology of the flight, fight, freeze and collapse response of the nervous system to our life being in danger.  It is a body based response.  Of course, for some, the virus and the policy responses to it, may reawaken old trauma pathways, and present as intensified anxiety and survival strategies.  Re-emergence or intensification of previously diagnosed mental health conditions may present; and some people may need to seek help for the first time for intensive anxiety states and depression.  These symptoms are not so readily helped by coaching other than in facilitating thinking about what action is needed to re-establish emotional well-being.  That action may be medical or therapeutic.

However, for many, what we are experiencing are the stresses and anxiety which are normal in relation to the major upheavals to our lives and the risk to our health (felt more by some than others).  For those who have a close relative who has died, their grief will be compounded by not being able to be with the person, and by the impact on funeral arrangements.  Some days we might feel things more intensively that others, feelings move through us like waves in the sea.  I wouldn’t want these to be gathered up under a heading of ‘mental illness’.  They might get us down, and we might be helped by coaching and counselling to process these emotions, reassess actual risk or danger, challenge negative thoughts and identify what is possible to change this internal experience.  I have felt depressed over a few of the weeks, but I don’t label myself as mentally ill. I know it will shift, and it has. Other days I can feel my anxiety levels have risen, and I do what I can to bring more calmness.

I know some people are enjoying the changes in circumstances, the different pace, and maybe more time with the family. We shouldn’t assume that it is negative for everyone.

Coaches as well as our clients are all affected by this context.  The place to start is always with ourselves.  Attending to our own emotional wellbeing means we are better able to be present with our clients and respond appropriately to their emotional disclosures.  So, a few questions for you –

Where are you getting your support and space to talk? How would you assess your levels of anxiety, stress, mood?  What would help you most, right now?  Are you getting enough relaxation, fun and enjoyment? If not, what might be possible given the circumstances? What negative thoughts, if any, are you having?  What needs to happen for you to change those?

It is possible that the range and intensity of the emotional states of our clients will have changed due to Covid-19. Clients may need to talk more about what they are experiencing and how it affects them.  We need to be to be comfortable hearing and responding to different levels of emotional disclosure. We need a sensitivity to these emotional disclosures. For example, grief, sadness, loss need to be felt; depression, compulsive behaviour and  high levels of anxiety (for example, when someone is in flight or flight mode[i]) tend to be less responsive to coaching and require other interventions. We are not diagnosticians so are guided by our clients and what they identify is needed. We can offer our observations and concerns, if we have them.

Giving more space to emotions doesn’t mean that we stop coaching or become passive. We can continue to ask powerful questions, to invite clients to challenge patterns of thinking or behaving, or negative thoughts. Remember, clients are resourceful, and the coaching space is somewhere they can be helped to reflect, think, and imagine what they may be able to do to change their internal experience.   What we must avoid is moving into our survival strategies and rescuing the client, or being directive, or controlling of the process.

Compassion fatigue is an exhaustion from listening, compassionately, to suffering.  It means that we struggle to feel compassion, we can feel overwhelmed or helpless hearing of others’ emotional pain.   It is not something that is often linked with coaching. However, it might be that some coaches find the amount of emotional disclosure from our clients to be overwhelming or feel concerned or helpless about how we are responding clients.  The important thing is to notice those feelings, including repeated desires to rescue or identify with clients, talk with our supervisor, set up peer groups to share experience, think about reducing the time we spend coaching, take care of ourselves and spend enough time with people who are not talking to you in the same way.

Julia Vaughan Smith

June 2020

[i] Those in hyper-anxious states will be agitated, have shallow breathing, feel very fearful or angry. They may report not sleeping and being unable to relax at all.  In this state they have less access to their resources for reflective thinking, for assessing the actual danger they are in,  and taking action to reduce their level of fear. Some may respond to coaching interventions, some may not but they can be helped to access other interventions.