Feeling triggered: COVID-19 and abuse survivors

There is increasing awareness that the current global pandemic of COVID-19 is likely to result in more occurrences of abuse as people are advised to stay at home and a wide variety of support structures close down or become (even) less accessible. This can result in survivors and victims of abuse having to spend more time with their abuser, and in a more isolated way than before. It can also lead to survivors re-engaging with a past abuser as they struggle to find support to get their basic needs met, such as those with chronic illness needing to get groceries or medications, and abusers can be keen to take advantage of this opportunity. Boundaries (particularly no contact boundaries) can be difficult to maintain when you need food or supplies while self isolating or quarantining and have limited options for help.

Another aspect of how COVID-19 can impact on victims and survivors is that it can lead to a variety of circumstances that can be traumatic, re-traumatising, and triggering. Take for instance the current shortages of groceries. Repeated exposure to pictures of empty grocery stores, panic buying, and searching online for hours to find everywhere sold out of what you need can be upsetting. For those who have experienced childhood neglect or food insecurity, this situation can be triggering. It can remind them of the stress and trauma of living without their basic needs being met and what it was like living with constant uncertainty - this is on top of the current stress and uncertainty regarding COVID-19 and our global and societal responses to it. The result can be an increase of distress as survivors manage, not only adapting to a changing society that is staying indoors, going online, and hoarding supplies, but also the additional emotional impact of remembering or reliving those previous traumatic experiences of not having enough of what was needed.

They may find that they are craving more food than usual, that their hunger seems insatiable, that they are buying more and more food driven by a fear that no matter how much they have at home, it will not be enough. Chances are, they are tired. This high level of stress and uncertainty takes energy, which is why many therapists have been recommending that this time of self isolation does not need to be a time for self improvement or productiveness. Instead, it can be a time for rest and recovery, as the body needs that too.

For those who have experienced controlling or possessive behaviour such as during childhood within an emotionally abusive context, or a domestic abuse context, being told by an authority (e.g. politicians, medics, parents, media etc.) that you must stay inside for a certain amount of time and having limits on what you can do and where you can go, can trigger a remembering and reliving of not having autonomy over your actions and choices. So, they may feel like they are back in that abusive situation, even if they are not. Suddenly feeling like they are walking on eggshells around a partner, struggling to plan a new routine, finding it hard to adapt or reach out. Their mood could drop, or they could fawn if that has been a coping strategy in the past, i.e. trying to be as likeable as possible in the hope that they will be deemed worthy of love (and avoid violence and abuse) by being as helpful as possible.

So, while encouraging those who can to self isolate, stay inside, and keep social distancing, we can also make space for self soothing and self caring.


Need food or supplies and don't have someone to help you get them delivered? Try reaching out to mutual aid groups in your local area. You can find them by searching online and there are many groups on Facebook. Can't find one? Try setting one up - chances are you are not the only one in need of help and there are many people out there looking to provide assistance where they can.

Can't get to your therapy appointment? Try contacting your therapist to see if they are planning on (or would be willing to) temporarily change to an online format. There are a variety of encrypted online platforms that allow for confidentiality when talking online to a professional (such as VSee). If your therapist is not available online (perhaps they need this time to help family members or are unwell), try searching for another therapist who is online to help with support during this stressful time.

Cabin fever? Try dividing up your home into different spaces. That bookcase in the corner, that's your new library. The weights on the floor, check out your new private gym. That sketchbook on the table, that's your art class. Add friends and draw together via Skype or Facetime. Need to just spend time in bed or lying down in front of the television for days? Do that. In times of stress, more rest is needed. You don't need to be super productive or starting a new project just because it seems like you have more time now that you don't have to commute.

---> There are resources available for those currently in abusive situations who need support during self isolation. Below are some Vancouver based organisations:

Battered Women's Support Services (BWSS): https://www.bwss.org [trans and nonbinary inclusive, see - https://www.bwss.org/support/lgbtq2s/]

Ending Violence Association (EVA) of BC: https://endingviolence.org/need-help/ [working towards trans inclusivity, see - https://endingviolence.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/TDR-Statement-1-1.pdf]

Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW): https://www.wavaw.ca/get-support/ [Two spirit, trans, nonbinary inclusive: https://www.wavaw.ca/inclusion-project/]

Men's Therapy Centre (Vancouver Island):