COVID, Stress, Trauma, and You By Ron Frey
Are you experiencing COVID trauma or something else?
Evelyn* was reaching her limits and it was not just the effect of COVID on ministry operations, or a family member contracting the disease. Nor was it the existential threat it posed to the organization’s financial viability, the disruption caused by a board member or a series of human relations challenges among her staff. “ After more than 20 years at the helm of a social service agency, these challenges,” she explained in our coaching call, “just go with the territory.”
Uncovering Layers of Stress
Rather, the “COVID challenges” dug up a lot of emotions that had been buried for years, exposing layers of tension and stress that had been building up. For several years, she had felt vulnerable, undermined, and even betrayed. She had never felt valued for her outstanding achievements in leading the organization to growth and community impact. In this moment of crisis, she had no expectation of support from the people she most needed it from – her staff and board. Deep inside she was experiencing the effects of trauma. COVID simply exposed it.
Trauma is a subject we’d like to avoid. As leaders, it’s easy to wear the persona of having our act together and remaining unaffected by the events that bring it about. But let’s be honest. The experience of trauma, especially in times like these, is more common than we’d like to admit. At some level, trauma affects us all.
Trauma Is Real
What is trauma? When we think about trauma, we tend to think of acute events such as a car accident, a physical injury, or the death of a loved one. But trauma is more than that. A year into the COVID crisis, the stress of leading your organization and staff while working from home, the uncertainty of funding, inability to connect with donors and a host of other issues may be causing you trauma. You’ve had to face many difficult questions all at once and at multiple times:
- Who will we lay off?
- How can we make our business model work?
- Will we survive long term?
- Is our mission and vision still relevant?
- How do we respond to new opportunities?
- Will donors keep giving?
- How do we pivot back to normal, or can we?
If that’s you, it’s no wonder that you may feel exhausted, distracted and on edge. That’s trauma speaking to you.
Deal with Trauma Head On
The first step is to acknowledge that trauma is real. At some level, the trauma of COVID is affecting you and those around you in ways that may be hidden or suppressed. There is no shame in this. The experience of trauma is a normal part of life. Trauma informed leaders seek to understand it better.
But don’t underestimate its effects on the mind and body. In a review of The Body Keeps Score, Tiago Forte writes,
“As psychologists have observed all the way back to Freud and Breuer, ‘the psychical trauma—or more precisely the memory of the trauma—acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that still is at work.’ It doesn’t require any conscious influence – you just constantly feel on edge, for no apparent reason. You may have a sense that something has gone wrong, or of imminent doom. These powerful feelings are generated deep inside the brain and cannot be eliminated by reason or understanding.”
If you feel these symptoms, face the fact that you may be experiencing trauma at a level that is deep and hidden from view. Perhaps it’s time for you to get some professional support. Take a break. Get some rest. Use some quiet time to reflect on what is happening, how it’s affected you personally, and how it may be affecting others. As you lead others who are experiencing trauma, create a safe environment for people to express their fears and anxieties. Offer understanding and grace.
Discover God’s Purpose for It
A significant question in dealing with trauma is to understand what God wants to do in your life as a result, and to trust Him that His purpose is good. Joseph was betrayed by his own brothers, sold into slavery, and languished for years in prison. That’s trauma, but God had a grand design where all that pain was preparation for his divine appointment. David’s life was unjustly threatened by Saul and he lived through years of being hunted down. That’s trauma, but God used these experiences in his life to prepare him for the Kingship. The Apostle Paul experienced beatings, stoning, and shipwrecks. That’s trauma, but he said
“That is why I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Cor. 12:10)
You may not know God’s purpose for your trauma. And it may require counseling or therapy to really grasp the impact trauma has played in your life. As COVID persists and we live with new challenges, this is a good time to assess your level of trauma and of those around you so that it can be healed, and it’s purpose can be revealed.
*(not the real name of the person)
Ron Frey is president of Frey Resource Group, a strategic and creative consulting firm that helps non-profit organizations inspire joyful generosity and achieve extraordinary success in fundraising. He has trained and consulted with hundreds of organizations on branding, donor communications, major gifts, foundation grants and capital campaigns.
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