We Are All In This Together

By: Melissa Berman 
May 16, 2021

I was on the platform for the downtown F train in midtown Manhattan, heading to visit a friend, when they announced that all but one train had stopped running. Like lemmings, the crowd, myself included, rushed towards the working train. As I stood midway down the staircase to the track, I looked out at the packed subway platform, about 20 people deep, stretching as far as the eye could see. At that moment, a very loud voice inside my head, said “Get. Out. Now.”

It was cold and raining when I reached the street, but I didn’t care. I walked 40 blocks to my apartment. No more public transportation. No more crowds. In fact, no more New York City, for a while anyway. I felt something ominous coming, and I needed to get to a place of safety. That was about 10 days before lockdown. We’d heard the virus mentioned in the news, but people were still going about their daily bustling city business. Hand sanitizer was flying off the shelves, but there remained plenty of toilet paper. Still, the sight of the jam-packed subway was an alarm for me. Like the flip of a switch, my nervous system went into fight or flight mode. In an instant, I decided to flee to my place in Montauk, for a month, maybe two I thought, until things calmed down. I booked myself on the last bus out – thinking it would be mostly empty - safe. I arrived in Montauk at 2 a.m. and never went back to NYC.


We all know what happened next. The biggest health crisis of our lifetime.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, where you live, or what color you are. It came for all of us at the same time. Of course, it hit the vulnerable harder, but this pandemic touched every person on this planet in some way. As I write, in fact, it is brandishing its most vicious weapon yet, on our fellow humans in India.

We’ve been through a lot in the past 16 months. Together, and individually, the trauma is real, the losses immense, the emotions potent, and the way we were, gone. We can, and we will resume life, but we can’t go back. Like any powerful experience, we have been irrevocably changed by this pandemic.

Psychotherapist Robert Levin puts it this way, “We are creatures that mostly seek security, and to maintain as much familiarity as possible. The pandemic threw that safety and security into question. The most mundane things we took for granted, were now considered dangerous. Going to the store. Hugging a friend. Moving around. Even breathing air.” Levin also points out that people have a tendency towards denial. Once a threat is seemingly not as looming or imminent, we might be inclined to forget the danger.

But that denial doesn’t erase the very real trauma we’ve all experienced, individually for many, and collectively for us all. Roey Ficaro, a licensed Clinical Social Worker and Trauma Specialist, explains trauma this way, “According to experts, trauma is defined as an unbearable & intolerable event one experiences as physically, or emotionally harmful or life threatening. This brings one’s nervous system into a highly dysregulated state of fight or flight mode, where specific areas of the brain are affected, and can bring on PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).” She adds, “This health crisis we have been in for this prolonged period of time, can be considered a traumatic event for many.”

a woman

Both therapists point out that different people had different experiences and reactions, but both saw a dramatic increase in depression, anxiety, grief, and other mental health issues. I asked them about their observations, and for some insight as we navigate what we lost, what we learned and the question on a lot of our minds, ‘what next?’

What mental health challenges did you notice with your clients during the pandemic?

 “Since the pandemic started, my practice has been flooded with clients filled with fear, anxiety and terror that they or a loved one might die. I am very concerned with how children have been affected. Children in my practice have verbalized the fear of dying, fear of their parents & relatives dying.” Ficaro explains that she’s had an influx of former clients returning, due to the stress, and new clients who had never experienced anxiety or depression before. “In some, underlying issues surfaced, due to isolation and working from home. Others found themselves drinking, eating, or shopping in excess.” She also notes that substance abuse issues have increased during the pandemic, “clients who rely on meetings to maintain recovery, had a very difficult time. Recovery meetings are crucial for those with addiction.” 

 Levin revealed that some of his clients who were sick with COVID “have had a difficult time getting well, and have lingering health concerns. Some of them need a lot of encouragement to transition into trusting the outside world again.” He also mentions that those who have been lonely, and have found coping mechanisms for their isolation “may need help leaving their comfort zone into the world again.” 

 Is there a difference between collective trauma and individual trauma?

 “Absolutely,” explains Ficaro, “an example of collective trauma would be war, slavery, hurricane, a tsunami, the wildfires in California and of course this worldwide pandemic we are all enduring. Individual trauma leaves people isolated, alone with their fears and emotions, and very often with unrealistic feelings of shame and guilt that they may have caused it, or that they are the only ones feeling this way. In collective or communal trauma, such as this pandemic, we are all in it together. This creates, even with all the isolation, a feeling of community and that we are not alone in the experience. The big difference is that, in collective trauma, everyone is a witness. In individual trauma, one is labeled, and the hurt, terror and pain is experienced alone.” 

 What has helped? 

 “The main issue is security, safety, feeling part of something and useful to others. The more isolated we feel and the less connected, the worse off we feel.” says Levin. “As therapists, we want to encourage some people to rely on others, and allow themselves to feel vulnerable or novices at things. Basically, engaging in the world, becoming more inclusive of others and being social is good for us.”

protest and prayer

He continues, “Another thing to think about is the way people respond to threats. Some will circle the wagons, everyone for themselves as a way to keep out the dangerous elements. It’s interesting to see the surge of racial justice protests within this context, seeing that the other way to experience threat is to cooperate and try and work together. It’ll be interesting to see how, as countries and as individuals, we might wish to maintain an isolating stance, or realize we are all in this together. I think we can come out of this feeling more globally connected to others, more environmentally responsible and mindful.”

Ficaro also cites the importance of connection, by any means, and in particular, the connection to our bodies. “Connection brings healing! With collective trauma, the idea that we are all in this together, is key to feeling safe and regaining a sense of balance.” She adds, “What is also important, is to keep moving. Go to a beautiful spot surrounded by nature such as a beach or a walking trail, and focus on all the surrounding nature and beauty. The color of the sky, the trees, listen to the birds singing, feel the air and sun on your skin. Get into your body and out of your head. Ground yourself by feeling the earth support you as you walk, walk barefoot!” She also advises, “it’s especially important not to fill your head with triggering messages, limit watching the news! It raises anxiety like nothing else and instills more fear. Yes, we need to keep up with what is happening, but it doesn’t need to be constant. Don’t let kids near it!” 

What about what’s next? 

“There are strong debates about how people want to work going forward, and what that will do to relationships and mental health.” says Levin, addressing the ‘yet to be defined’ new normal of work. “I think the downside of working from home would be that it tends to isolate us from others. The spontaneity of meeting and chatting with others would be lost. There are such little details that we take for granted, in our social exchanges with others, which are much more restricted when we work from home. We also get so much affirmation (and affirm others too) from those we interact with, including strangers, through smiles, shoulder touches and hugs. Without those constant reminders that we are valued humans, we might suffer a sense of invisibility.”

“On the positive side, we would be able to save on commuting time, allowing ourselves the ability to do things with that time that could improve our well-being and health. Time spent with loved ones, spouses, children and friends would possibly increase. We’ve also seen people settling in places they could only have dreamt of visiting, let alone staying for long stretches of time, working in their preferred environments.” 

As for couples who have had a bit too much ‘home together’ time where their relationships have suffered, Levin offers, “maybe remembering that this has been an extremely challenging time, and allowing a transition, or recognizing that things can, and will get better, is important. When I work with couples, there can be so much hurt and withdrawal that occurs, which is imperceptible to the partner. We tend to see things only from our perspective, and so helping people suspend their needs (for a bit), and listen to their partner’s needs, can be important to gain a sense of understanding of what is going on. Seeking some counseling with a therapist can be very good for couples who have struggled.” 

He adds, in general, “It’s important to remind people that transitions are hard. There might be a sense of loss to their comfort and safety, and it’s okay if they feel hesitant or even anxious. They can expect an ambivalent response to suddenly going “back to normal”. 

Ficaro agrees, “Moving very slowly back into the world seems to be the way many are handling themselves as we move out of isolation.” She adds, “Trepidation, or fear of going out to eat in a restaurant, or going back into an office, is very real. Also, feeling less motivated to get back to the gym, for example, or finding the way back into a routine that was in place before the pandemic, is so common. It isn’t easy. Everyone needs to find what works for them individually, to bring about a feeling of safety. We all have different levels of fear and anxiety. Getting the vaccine seems to have brought about a tremendous sense of relief.”


She also suggests, “Focusing on one’s breath to bring calm, and release tension, can be helpful. Maybe a simple mantra to repeat over and over such as:

I am safe, I am protected
I am alive and healthy

It can also be useful to remember things from this time that we want to maintain, once things are ‘back to normal.’ To reflect on how we found ways to thrive and survive during all the chaos. To constantly remind ourselves that we are not alone in this crisis.”

Levin sums it up this way, “Life is precious, it can be short, love yourself and try to love as many others as possible.”


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