An image of many faces overlaid with coronavirus imagery illustrates the concept of COVID trauma, a new mental health term.

COVID Trauma, sometimes called Collective COVID Trauma, is a new term mental health professionals use to describe the long-lasting effects of grief, loss and fear related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (The term is not in the DSM-5-TR, the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the U.S.)

Massage therapists are familiar with clients who present with the effects of traumatic events, which can show up as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety, and result in armoring and emotional release, among other presentations.

The nonprofit Mental Health America notes in its report, “COVID-19 and Trauma: Communities in Need Across the U.S.”: “As opposed to previous disasters in the U.S. that affected certain specific regions or populations where aid and trauma response could be concentrated, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire population of the country.”

What is COVID Trauma?

Silvi Saxena, MBA, MSW, LSW, CCTP, OSW-C, a mental health professional with, a national directory of therapists, said, “[COVID trauma] can be related to death of a loved one due to COVID, the loss of a business as a result of the shutdown, as well social isolation, [the stress of] being a frontline worker, and a chronic feeling of doom.

“The combination of any of these, let alone just one of these experiences while all living through a global pandemic, is traumatic,” said Saxena. “COVID trauma is similar to the PTSD diagnosis—and two-plus years post the beginning of the pandemic, COVID trauma responses are coming up in similar ways as PTSD triggers.”

The Long COVID Connection

Long COVID can trigger COVID Trauma, said Maya McNulty, a COVID long-hauler who created a COVID wellness support community called COVID Wellness Clinic after falling ill to the virus in March 2020. The group has grown to more than 3,300 long-haulers.

“I can tell you I have bad dreams,” McNulty said. “I feel like I’m outside of my body. I feel detached from everyone. Like time goes in slow motion. [They are] laughing and talking, but I just space out and my mind drifts.”

McNulty said she can easily be triggered back to the time when she was ill, suffers from anxiety attacks and depression, and feels tapped out emotionally and spiritually. 

Lissa Wheeler, LMT, author of “Engaging Resilience—Heal the Physical Impact of Emotional Trauma: A Guide for Bodywork Practitioners,” told MASSAGE Magazine that as a bodywork practitioner specializing in trauma, most of her clients have profound trauma histories.

“Their nervous systems are already highly sensitive and reactive,” Wheeler said. Because the long-COVID clients she sees find their nervous systems strained further by that condition, “compassionate and trauma-informed bodywork has been a lifeline for them.”

Signs and Symptoms

In addition to surviving COVID-19, simply living through the pandemic has contributed to a new type of post-trauma syndrome, experts say.

The COVID pandemic has been described as a traumatic event because it has been an extreme stressor that triggers psychological distress and physiological reactions such as anxiety, depressive symptoms, PTSD and substance use disorders, explained Colleen Wenner, LMHC MCAP LPC, founder and clinical director of New Heights Counseling & Consulting in Walton Beach, Florida.

“The impact of the pandemic on individuals’ mental health is profound,” she said. “COVID brought with it a sense of loss, fear, uncertainty and isolation with which people struggle daily to find ways to cope.”

“Symptoms of sleep disturbance, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance behaviors and an increased risk of suicide have all been reported among those who are directly affected by the virus or indirectly through their family members,” Wenner said.

In the article “Two Years of Trauma,” published in Georgia State University Research Magazine, the authors wrote, “The pandemic has produced a mental health crisis with effects that may reverberate for years—even decades—to come.” The article also noted:

• A survey from the American Psychological Association indicated that almost two-thirds of respondents “said their lives have been permanently changed by the pandemic, and that a large percentage of Americans have been living in “sustained survival mode” with significant consequences for mental health.

• The World Health Organization says the pandemic has sparked a 25 percent increase in anxiety and depression worldwide.

“The wounds that have been inflicted upon us by this pandemic will not heal easily,” said Wenner. “We must stand together during this challenging time by showing our solidarity and kindness toward one another.”

Massage Therapy for COVID Trauma

Massage therapists cannot diagnose and are versed in referring clients to mental health professionals when needed. They are also grounded in the knowledge that many presentations of trauma—tight muscles and stress among them—may be relieved by massage.

“As a trauma-informed massage therapist, I have encountered many patients manifesting trauma responses from their experience with COVID,” said educator and massage therapist Jimmy Gialelis (who is a frequent contributor to MASSAGE Magazine). “Ultimately, it is a professional (and ethical) responsibility to learn and understand disease-processes experienced by my clientele. I continue to educate myself on long-term COVID impacts.”

Gialelis said there are some important steps to take with clients who present with COVID Trauma:

1. Ensure clients feel heard. “Many are highly concerned at how long their physical signs and symptoms linger,” said Gialelis. “They often need time to express their concerns and fears aloud.”

2. Calm the central nervous system before and throughout the session.

3. Trauma patients need to be taught tangible tools to employ when trauma responses are felt within their bodies, said Gialelis. After the session, he will coach a client on breath work to attempt daily. “This will provide them a tangible tool to utilize when their concerns arise again,” he said.

While many Americans are ready to move on from the pandemic, it is still underway, with an average of 350 Americans dying from COVID-19 each day.

Karen Menehan

About the Author

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief–print and digital. Her recent articles for this publication include “A Move to Transcend State Boundaries: Updates on the Interstate Compact for Massage Therapists” and “This is How Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Practices Make Business Better,” one of the articles in the August 2021 issue of MASSAGE Magazine, a first-place winner of the national 2022 Folio Eddies Award for editorial excellence.