Etching Invisible Tattoos: Risks of Overlooking the Emotional Effects of COVID-19

By William D. Parham, Ph.D., ABPP

Relaxing stay-at-home restrictions and permitting the gradual return to life as it used to be prior to this pandemic has ushered in a collective, albeit guarded, sigh of relief that maybe we finally have a handle on this crisis. Excitement about returning to work, eating out in restaurants, enjoying family gatherings, working out in fitness clubs, hiking on trails, attending concerts and worshiping face to face within faith-based communities is palatable, even prevailing as distance from the apex of the initial chaos widens. Despite science-based forecasts of the resurgence of COVID-19 likely during the fall/early winter, eagerness of some individuals and communities to reclaim their lives has bloomed into disavowing the seriousness of COVID-19 and disregarding science-based public health distancing and safety protocols.

Irrespective of personal and varied emotional reactions to loosening of pandemic-related restrictions, the dramatic impact to date of coronavirus cannot be overstated and the emotional toll that has been extracted from everyone will continue to accumulate as people embark on this next phase of this unrivaled journey. No one was exempt from experiencing a mix of emotions including anxiety, depression, sadness, frustration, anger, loss, grief, resentment, bitterness and more, all peppered with hope, faith, and trust in brighter days ahead. And, offered for consideration is an observation that while the intensity of the emotions seems to be subsiding, some level of emotional scaring may have taken place. The sudden and pronounced puncture of pre-COVID-19 lived realities have etched memories, inked emotionally and indelibly, that will not soon be forgotten. For some, whose pandemic experiences have pushed them to the margins of their emotional reserves and exposing past traumas, they are likely to feel like a scab has been ripped off a wound believed to be healing.

Emotions emerging from trauma are akin to ink used by tattoo artists who skillfully etch indelible images onto a person’s body. Persons receiving tattoos, irrespective of the size or complexity, feel discomfort that ranges from mild to quite significant. Collectively, the complex infusion of emotions resulting from trauma are recorded, encoded, stored in the body, and used as emotional ink from life’s wells of early and adverse circumstances to etch invisible tattoos of the painful and impossible-to-forget experiences from which a person has just emerged.

Trauma experiences can’t be un-seen, un-heard or un-felt! They are deeply personal, uniquely nuanced, and intricately emotional. Multiple persons experiencing the same or similar experiences deemed traumatic will perceive, live through, and process their experiences very differently.

Given what is known about trauma and adverse childhood experiences, it is reasonable to assume that resurgence of COVID-19 could likely awaken, yet again, unacknowledged and unreconciled feelings that influence decision-making across day-to-day life domains including work, school, parenting, relationships with partners, leisure pursuits, health and fitness routines, and commitments to faith-based practices. While overlooking the emotional effects of COVID-19 is tempting, particularly if there is an overall feeling of having made it through this current journey relatively unscathed, attending to personal emotional health and well-being is always highly encouraged. Talking with a mental health professional, confiding in a trusted friend or colleague, logging a daily journal, and working differently and more efficiently to balance professional and personal demands might be considered in this regard.

Working on and healing from past hurts is a quest worth pursuing. Further, looking anew at past hurts doesn’t mean that the emotional turmoil never existed. It means that it no longer has the degree of control over a person’s life that it once had. Finding moments for reflective contemplation might result in discovering that the road to healing isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it is about “un-becoming” everything that isn’t really you so that you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.

A difficult part for any person moving forward in their life unanchored with past baggage may involve forgiving people. Traveling down this road of emotional freedom might lead a person to discover how strong they really are when they find themselves forgiving someone who wasn’t sorry and accepting an apology they have yet to receive.

Moving forward might also involve thinking atypically about situations and circumstances from which the emotional ink was drawn initially to etch the invisible tattoos that still remain. Consider for a moment that the emotional pain that stays with us might actually contain messages that haven’t yet been received and likely could contain lessons that illuminate a way forward.

In the end, the story of COVID-19 is still unfolding, and pages that have yet to be turned will likely keep us asking what’s next! I am reminded at this moment of two realities: Every story has a person and every person has a story. Reclaiming authorship for personal stories and deciding how best to move the plot forward, allows for some measure of control over how and in what manner the story comes to an end. Until next time …