Triggering old Childhood Trauma

Posted by Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT on April 17, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT

5 minute read

Old Childhood Trauma - Imago Relationships North America

As a Relationship Therapist, I am seeing my client couples online during Sheltering in Place due to COVID-19. I am finding that we are all experiencing increased stress, leading to feelings of being overwhelmed, irritable, depressed, and angry. 

We are living with a level of unpredictability for which we feel no real power to do anything. The world outside is unpredictable, and we don't know what to believe or who to trust. There's so much information and disinformation out there that we are left feeling anxious about our health, our finances, our jobs ... and our lives.

In childhood, we are traumatized whenever our parents are unpredictable or volatile, and we don't know what to expect. We cannot trust them. Because we're young, we have no control or power over our situation. These experiences get recorded as trauma in our brains and bodies. We learned helplessness and react by either protesting or shutting down. In simple terms, we carry that reactivity into our lives for decades. We're always looking for safety and are hyper-vigilant to danger.

I'm beginning to realize that COVID-19 can trigger some of those survival patterns learned in childhood. It is for this reason that some people are overwhelmed by anxiety, unable to sleep, restless, and finding it hard to stay home. Others are sinking into depression, shutting down, becoming lethargic. They struggle to get off the sofa or get out for a walk.

COVID-19 has created similar trauma, in some cases bringing us right back to the feelings we experienced as children. It's made our lives unpredictable. We cannot trust its course or outcome, and we feel helpless over so many facets of our lives in the face of it. What can we do?


Fortunately, we are no longer as helpless as when we were children. It's important to allow our Adult Brain the opportunity to choose a response, rather than the familiar reaction learned in childhood. We can choose to follow some guidelines to help us to manage the fear, anxiety, and depression we feel.

Organize Your Day 

I find that it is important to organize my day into what I can do to avoid going into what's called "timeless helplessness." I invite you to find a rhythm and to establish a daily routine. Know when you'll wake up, have breakfast, talk to friends, do some work, walk the dog, cook dinner, etc. Don't let your days just pass by, or you'll experience more malaise and lethargy! 

Get Moving 

Another essential tool to fight the feelings of helplessness is mobility. Physical movement is key. Go for a walk, lift some weights, or practice some movement. Our bodies are the one thing we have control over right now. Exercise increases endorphins and dopamine to help us feel better.

Get Support Online

There are many other tools available online for dealing with strong emotions. For example, there are apps for practicing mindfulness, meditating, praying, and breathing. We also have access to many helpful professionals guiding us to eat better and to stay healthy by improving our immune systems. I've found online workouts and yoga classes to stay active.

Connect with your Partner

Relationally, it's important to also schedule in some time to connect with your partner. 

Connect with your Partner - Imago Relationships North America

Make a Ritual for a Time to Talk, Share a Meal, or Cuddle up

It's easy to feel lonely while our daily lives are disrupted. Try to use this time to increase your friendship and intimacy with one another. Maintaining your sexual interactions releases feel-good hormones and releases stress.

Many couples will come together over this crisis. But many others are struggling right now. They are feeling disconnected and are fighting more. External stressors are causing a lack of patience with one another. Uncertainty is met with a need to control, which sometimes ends up being a need for our partner to be different. 

People who don't get along are trapped together all day. Police Statistics and Domestic Abuse Hotlines are showing a rise in reports around the world, as much as 30%. Divorce rates have also risen in Asia, and it's predicted that the Western World will follow once the crisis is over.

Be Aware of Situational Tension

If you and your partner are experiencing increased tension in your relationship, you may be locked in a Power Struggle. Perhaps you are trying to communicate, but your words to one another are filled with judgment, blame, and criticism. This, inevitably, will lead to misery for you. 

Yesterday, I asked a particularly angry couple if it was their goal to walk out of lockdown together at the end of this time? 

Some of us are behaving in ways where that will not be possible if we're not careful. Experience shows that your struggles won't resolve themselves and may get worse if you don't address them head-on.

Call a Truce

No criticizing, no ignoring each other, name-calling, no defensiveness. Now is not the time to be pointing out your partner's character defects.

Here are Some Ways to Change the Focus

  • Pull up two chairs, face one another, and connect with your eyes. Take turns expressing appreciation for one another during this time of crisis

  • Move on to telling one another about the underlying fears that you're experiencing. Beneath a lot of anger and frustration, is fear. Allow yourselves to be vulnerable and to express what you're feeling safely. 

  • Describe to one another what resources you're finding helpful (breathing, walking, reading, praying, baths, cooking, chatting with friends, etc.).

  • Get clear about each of your needs for both space and connection.

  • Work together to create rituals to support one another.

  • Share and celebrate the moments where you've seen the goodness, hope, beauty, and inspiration in the world during this crisis.

  • Reach out for online counseling if you are stuck or unable to have a safe connection on your own.

Love - Imago Relationships Blog and Relationship Tips

Give Ourselves a Break

We have never dealt with something like this before in a collective way. Each day brings its joys and disappointments. 

Work with some of these ideas so that you can not only survive but thrive in this unusual time.  Please let me know if I can help get you through this challenging time. I wish you all safety, good health, calm minds, and open hearts.

If you're struggling with childhood trauma during the COVID-19 crisis, check out our Imago Relationship TherapyWe have online therapy available today too! 

Discover more about Imago with our Imago Professional MembershipImago Professional Facilitators, Imago Professional Training and Imago Educational Webinars


Connect. Transform. Thrive.

 Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT - Imago Relationships North AmericaThis blog was written by Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT. 

I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California. I have 30 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families. I have two advanced certifications in working with couples: Imago Relationship Therapy and Encounter-centered Couples Therapy. 

I work with spouses and parents to deepen communication, resolve conflict and rediscover the joy of being together. In addition to private sessions in my Los Angeles office, I am also passionate about leading workshops for Engaged Couples. With years of experience in premarital counseling, I am happy to offer an Imago based workshop entitled, Start Right, Stay Connected. I also facilitate a Weekend Couples Retreat, Over the Bridge, for couples wanting profound transformation. For couples who desire deep, intensive, quick resolution in a private setting, I also offer one and two-day Private  Intensives. 

I have also been active throughout my career in educating and training students and interns to become practicing therapists. I have taught and supervised at various universities and training sites around Los Angeles. Prior to coming to California, I served as a team therapist and supervisor at Houston Child Guidance Center working with children and troubled adolescents. I have given numerous workshops and presentations, taught graduate courses, and supervised many interns on their way to becoming licensed.

I am an active member of the California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, Los Angeles Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, IMAGO Relationship Institute, and the Southern California IMAGO Institute. I am a Master Encounter-centered Couples Therapist.  I am active in various spiritual settings and community endeavors. I love my profession and truly enjoy helping others to heal, grow, develop a heightened state of well-being and create more love and peace in their lives. 

Several years ago, I co-founded The Conversation Group, an organization of like-minded licensed and pre-licensed therapists.  We work with you in a very safe and collaborative way to create conversations that open up paths to clarity, insight, and healing which can motivate movement toward the life you desire. Join our Facebook page for daily meditations and healing quotations.

Topics: Anxiety, Stress Relief, Mental Health, Sexual Trauma, Trauma, Childhood Trauma, Healing Trauma, Racial Trauma, Trauma Recovery, Trauma Healing, What Happened To You, Chronic Trauma, Trauma Informed, Healing From Trauma, Complex Trauma, Acute Trauma, Trauma Therapy

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The Imago Relationships Blog features content from our team of professional therapists, workshop presenters and facilitators who are passionate about helping you discover a new way to communicate and love your life.

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