Considering the 3 E’s of Trauma in the Context of a Pandemic

Considering the 3 E’s of Trauma in the Context of a Pandemic

In the early stages in becoming trauma-informed it is common to be exposed to the 3 E’s of Traumatic Response.  We recognize that first an Event must occur that threatens our physical or psychological safety.  This event may happen directly to us, to a loved one, or in our world at large but that there’s a connection to our conscious or subconscious perception of risk. Which brings us to the second E, Experience.  In response to any given event, we are vulnerable for traumatic response when we experience feelings of terror, have our worldview shaken, and have our coping be overwhelmed.  Without sufficient protective or buffering factors, we then are at risk for the third E, having long-lasting Effects.  The feeling of being unsafe, having increased reactivity and challenges to our coping persist over time, well after the event has subsided.  To meet criteria for PTSD, for example, symptoms must persist for at least 30 days.

If this framework occurs during typical years, how can we effectively apply this foundational concept to assessing needs in such an atypical experience as an ongoing pandemic?  And why might it be important to do so?  One aspect of current media coverage promotes the idea that we should anticipate a large-scale mental health crisis at best and nearly universal trauma at worst.  While there are very real risks related to our health and well-being in coping with these times, by considering the 3 E’s within the current context can provide a more hopeful, action-oriented framework.

Event(s):  Check.  The fact that there is an event, really many events, is undeniable.  The pandemic, the reckoning around racial justice and equity, and the heightened levels of poverty, insecurity, and disrupted connections are just some of the many current events that could be experienced as trauma.  We must recognize that this is reality and hold hope within this reality, not craft sunshine and rainbows out of thin air.  However, we must be clear that these events are unfolding and evolving, not over.  Therefore, there is an opportunity to act in ways that promote factors and resilience.

Experience: Individual and collective experience of these events will matter.  How we perceive risk to ourselves and our loved ones is dynamic subconscious process that enfolds our demographic and/or health status, our ability to protect or control exposure, and formal or informal supports we are able to access to meet our needs.  By applying good trauma-responsive practices in our personal and professional lives we can shape the experience we are having, as well as the experience of our loved ones or persons in care.

Effects: by building and maintaining connections, normalizing manifestations of our understandable stress, and supporting positive coping, we go a long way to minimizing the risk for most of us to truly experience long-term negative effects.  In fact, evidence from prior human disasters tells us two important things: that around 80% of us will return to our baseline post-event and that our single greatest asset in recovery is community cohesion.

Using the 3 E’s to guide our thinking and actions of support during current times will significantly increase our ability to promote this recovery when the pandemic is over, conserving critical resources for those that truly need it.  At times a simple, familiar way goes a long way.