Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.
– Peter Levine, PhD
According to a recent Lancet study, 1/3 of people who recover from Covid wind up with psychological and/or neurological symptoms. Another study suggests that 7 in 10 people who were hospitalized for Covid have not fully recovered five months later. One in five Covid survivors wind up with a new onset disability, which we’re calling “long Covid,” and which is likely the same kind of post-viral illness we’ve seen before as the result of other kinds of viral infections, such as post-Epstein Barr. The ten most common symptoms of long Covid include muscle pain, fatigue, physical slowing down, impaired sleep quality, joint pain or swelling, limb weakness, breathlessness, pain, short-term memory loss, and slowed thinking. Although some patients still find that they have to fight their doctors’ ignorance about long Covid, long Covid is real- and it’s becoming the next big public health crisis.
Because my particular area of medical expertise is the impact of trauma treatment and spiritual healing on difficult to treat chronic medical conditions, I have a curiosity and suspect that it’s valid to consider whether long Covid could be a trauma symptom that might respond positively to trauma treatment as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
We already know that pathogens can incite a physiological event that can trigger autoimmune-like responses. Post-viral illnesses are nothing new, although they reveal a massive blind spot in the way conventional medicine approaches such symptoms. We already know that viruses can remain hidden, as the chicken pox virus can when it gets reactivated during times of psychological stress as shingles. From what I’ve read about long Covid, it behaves like an autoimmune disease, almost like post-Epstein Barr or chronic Lyme, which are also incited by infections with a pathogen- but whose symptoms can linger after the infection has been treated. From my trauma-informed point of view, autoimmune disease is often a response to situational, developmental, or collective trauma, a point of view mirrored by family practice doctor Gabor Mate, MD in When The Body Says No.
This is not to suggest that long Covid is solely a psychological/psychiatric disease, in that it’s not “all in your head.” It is infection with the virus itself that acts as the inciting trigger, and the damage done to the body and nervous system is real. But it may not be the virus itself causing long Covid symptoms, as Covid tests are negative in long Covid patients. The virus is gone- or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it’s hiding- but an immune system hyperactively stimulated by the physiology of the long physiological distress caused by preexisting trauma may do the rest.
Is this because of the trauma of having Covid itself? Maybe. Certainly, getting infected with a potentially lethal virus during a global pandemic and then surviving that virus is a trauma worthy of treating, in and of itself. But I have a hunch that those who suffer long Covid symptoms had preexisting untreated trauma and/or unrecognized chronic stress before becoming infected with Covid. Add to preexisting trauma the psychological and physiological stress of having Covid, especially if people were isolated, terrified, and alone in the ICU, and this will amplify and re-traumatize preexisting trauma.
As a doctor and somewhat of an expert on trauma and its impact on the physical body, I’d be interested in seeing an assessment of childhood trauma scales in long Covid patients- not just Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE scores), which are situational traumas, but also developmental and collective traumas included. My suspicion is that their preexisting trauma burdens may be high, which puts their immune systems at risk of overzealously activating after Covid infection.
Especially considering the collective traumas many Covid patients will have endured, such as systemic racism, colonization of the Indigenous, the stress of preexisting chronic illness, the social isolation and loneliness common among the elderly, and the impact of poverty and financial injustice on the nervous system, it would make sense that the population of Covid survivors would be at higher risk of the long term sequelae of long Covid, if it is indeed related to trauma.
If this hypothesis is true, then effective trauma healing work may be a necessary and highly effective part of any comprehensive and holistic treatment plan for long Covid, one that should not be overlooked or treated solely with medication. I’m not suggesting trauma healing should be the ONLY treatment; conventional medicine has treatments likely to help as well, including vaccination and treatment of the damage autoimmune hyper-reactivity can cause to organ systems and the nervous system. I’m just saying we should not treat only the symptoms without also treating what may have predisposed the patient to long term sequelae in the first place. Otherwise, the patient may be cured from long Covid only to wind up sick with something else that a traumatized nervous system and body may be vulnerable to acquiring.
We already know from the study of rheumatoid arthritis patients and their positive response to Internal Family Systems (IFS) trauma treatment that trauma healing can improve some symptoms of that particular autoimmune disease. And anecdotally, as I discovered from a decade of researching Sacred Medicine, conditions like chronic Lyme, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and dysautonomia respond positively to trauma treatment when other medical treatments often fail.
Will treating trauma, along with Covid vaccination (which seems to help 40% of long Covid patients) help cure long Covid? We don’t know yet, but given the prevalence of long Covid and the public health crisis its impact is having, it’s worthy of further scientific study. Methods of effectively treating complex trauma include Internal Family Systems (IFS), Advanced Integrative Therapy (AIT), and Somatic Experiencing, among others. Techniques like EMDR or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can also be used for trauma symptom relief and can be helpful when added to other complete psychotherapies, such as IFS, AIT, Somatic Experiencing, and Jungian psychotherapy, but in my opinion, should not be considered complete trauma treatment on their own, as they may not get to the root of the earliest iteration of a current trauma symptom.
It is my hope, as an advocate of healing during a great public health crisis, that the medical system not make the mistake it usually does- neglecting and ignoring the impact of trauma on the origin of and treatment of physical disease. To treat long Covid, we must at least take a complete trauma history (including developmental trauma, which is harder to screen for) and ensure that long Covid patients who carry a high trauma burden get the effective treatment they need- ideally without expecting them to pay out of pocket for trauma treatment. Until we offer this kind of truly holistic and trauma-informed treatment, we are failing to tend to our most vulnerable and need to take a hard look at our values, not only in the medical system, but as a culture.
If you or someone you love is one of those long Covid patients, please know that many people in my inner circle, including When The Body Says No author Gabor Mate, MD, IFS founder Richard Schwartz, PhD, Harvard psychiatrist and author of CURED Jeffrey Rediger, MD, AIT founder Asha Clinton, PhD, the Somatic Experiencing team, and others on the cutting edge of the link between trauma and disease are comparing notes and working together to heart-storm solutions to this massive public health crisis. In the non-profit I am spearheading, Heal At Last, we are also aware that creating affordable, accessible, safe, scalable, effective, community-based trauma treatment and spiritual healing are desperately needed right now, especially for long Covid survivors, but also for others with chronic illnesses that conventional medicine doesn’t know how to treat. We are working on it. We care about you. You matter. Your suffering matters. We carry you in our hearts and are so sorry for what you’re going through.
THE HEAL AT LAST MISSION:
Our mission is to utilize creativity to bring people in recovery from illness, injury, or trauma together in circles of healing, spirituality, writing, art, music, and connection for the purposes of easing loneliness, healing trauma, and improving physical and mental health outcomes, particularly for people who conventional medicine has been unable to cure. Using creativity and music as a portal to cutting edge trauma healing methods, spiritual healing, and energy medicine, we empower individuals and communities of healing who are ready for the deep dive of treating the root causes of personal and collective suffering.
Although cutting edge healing techniques have become a luxury good in modern cultures, we believe healing and transformation is everyone’s birthright and should not be limited to people of privilege. Heal At Last is committed to bringing creative inspiration, soulful intimacy and community connection, and deep healing work to anyone who is emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually ready for meaningful transformation, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, sexual preference, gender identity, political affiliation, or religion.
If you’re interested in donating to our our non-profit Heal At Last’s fund-raising efforts, we now have 501c3 status, so you can donate tax-exempt here. If you’re interested in being notified when we’re recruiting for our group leader trainings or if you’d like to participate in a Heal At Last group as someone in need of healing, get on our mailing list here.
PS. To listen to my point of view (and also the point of view of others like IFS founder Dick Schwartz and The Body Keeps The Score author Bessel va der Kolk) about healing trauma and its connection to treating medical illness, sign up for the free Trauma, Attachment & Resilience Summit here.