A Survivor Toolkit for Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis

Beach sunset with heart drawn in the sand

COVID-19 reached our NC State community in mid-March as students, faculty, staff and administrators scrambled to navigate the transition to online courses and programs. Simultaneously, many students hastily left dorm rooms or apartment buildings and returned to previous homes. Like most faculty, staff and administrators, students have had to find ways to create space for home, school and work — often all in one house, apartment or bedroom. This unexpected adjustment has forced all of us to shift the way we teach and learn, seek support, care for ourselves and care for each other.

My name is Carlyn Wright-Eakes, and I work in the Women’s Center at NC State as the interpersonal violence prevention education coordinator. Along with my colleague Janine Kossen, I provide emotional support and crisis response to NC State students who have been impacted by any form of interpersonal violence (IPV) including sexual assault, relationship violence, dating violence, sexual harrassment and stalking.

Students who have been impacted by IPV must often navigate unprecedented changes to daily routines, limitations in mobility and access to everyday resources, and experience new and fluctuating daily ranges of emotions including fear, anxiety, anger, grief and loss. In the last month as I have talked with students, faculty and staff in the midst of COVID-19, I can’t help but draw parallels to our collective current experience and the impacts survivors of IPV face on a daily basis. Though the source of this disruption is of a different nature, many of the tools needed to respond to violence and crisis and adjust to a “new normal” are universal.

This toolkit provides a variety of options for everyone in our community — students, faculty, and staff — on how to navigate the current COVID-19 crisis. It can also remind those who have experienced interpersonal violence of the survival skills they have already acquired — or are in the process of building and strengthening  as a result of responding to a previous trauma. It is also a reminder of the strength and resilience they already have that will guide them through future challenges, including the current challenge of COVID-19. As we all experience crisis and trauma differently, this toolkit will not be a blanket solution for everyone and every situation; rather it can provide ideas and options that may serve useful for students, faculty and staff at varying points in time.

Tips from the Survivor Toolkit

Begin a Daily Practice of Loving Yourself

When working with student survivors of IPV, we often ask, “How do you practice self-care?” Lists emerge, like getting nails done, getting a massage, a night out with friends. Many of those activities are not an option right now. Other things like bubble baths, playing with pets or going for walks might be options now and may be helpful, but they may not be enough to soothe anxiety. In moments of crisis, taking care of yourself involves daily routines and practices that make you feel good. It also involves a deeper and much more difficult step.

Our previous normal prioritized productivity and excellence as students or scholars. We would often get so caught up in the grind of performance that we would brush past acknowledging our own accomplishments, much less take time to love ourselves (or even LIKE ourselves). In addition to this fast-paced culture of college life, many survivors experience feelings of shame, guilt or unworthiness. For survivors, healing often starts with first recognizing and accepting that they matter — not just for what they create, how they perform on an exam or the grades they make at the end of the semester — but that they matter as human beings who exist just as they are and are worthy of love and care. Scholar and activist Audre Lorde reminds us, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” For survivors, and anyone experiencing crisis, caring for yourself is self-preservation, and it equips you with the tools you need for survival.

During COVID-19, create a daily practice to learn to love yourself. Ask yourself each morning, “How will I love myself today?” Listen to what your mind, body and spirit tells you that it needs. Explore. Make lists of what you do well. Talk to people you love. Read affirming poetry or books. Create — draw, sew, write, bake, cook — anything! Keep a nightly gratitude journal where you appreciate yourself for the love you have given. Remember, trauma lives in the body, so care for your physical needs as well. Hydrate. Stretch. Take your vitamins. Take naps. Go for a short walk around your neighborhood, if you can safely, and stay-at-home orders allow. Practice grounding exercises and deep breathing to help with anxiety and stress. You don’t have to do it all — just try to do a few small things every day. You are worthy and deserving of the love you give yourself.

Make Plans for Your Safety

Creating daily plans can also help relieve anxiety and uncertainty. Survivors in active situations — when able to secure a safe setting — can connect with resources at the Women’s Center, Violence Prevention and Threat Management, or Interact (off-campus) for in-depth safety planning. This often involves talking through any potential scenarios and preparing for how they will respond. Thinking through scenarios, although stressful, can help prepare a survivor to act quickly in an escalating situation or instance of danger. Safety planning can also include thinking about what to prepare in an emergency bag (for example, money, important documents, clothes, essential medications, etc.) if the survivor has to leave quickly. Planning may also include being mindful of surroundings when leaving home, work or school to ensure they feel safe and protected and thinking through how to stay safe on social media.

Creating plans during COVID-19 can also help relieve anxiety and uncertainty. While this may cause additional stress initially, having a plan means you’ll be able to act swiftly in the case of emergency. Think through how you will get your groceries, essential medications and other items. Make a list before you go, and determine the best time of day. Think through how you will protect yourself and others by using mouth and nose coverings, and washing your hands. Talk to your family, housemates or loved ones about how you will safely care for one another in an emergency if you or a loved one becomes ill. Remember, making plans does not mean you’re expecting the worst case scenario — it means you can hope for the best case scenario AND be prepared for anything.

Remind Yourself “I’m Doing the Best I Can”

Student survivors of IPV often experience a wide range of responses to trauma as they navigate unprecedented changes to their daily routines, including fear and anxiety of being on campus — walking to class, grabbing lunch in the dining hall, going to the gym or attending social events where they may no longer feel safe — difficulty focusing on schoolwork and assignments and disrupted sleep habits, to name a few. Often these disruptions to “life as normal” come as an additional shock, and survivors must balance how to adjust to a “new normal” — juggling the impact of trauma, their identity as a scholar with academic and professional goals, and daily tasks and obligations. It is not an easy task, and friends, family, peers and faculty rarely understand the depth of these new challenges without extensive explanations, details or justifications of how their “normal” has changed when the world around them continues without disruption. Survivors often face the difficult challenge of putting academics, work or other priorities on the back burner as they focus on their healing and recovery.

The change in daily routine as a result of COVID-19 has left all of us slightly befuddled about how to prioritize our time. What ACTUALLY matters? In the previous “normal,” you might have found value in your competency as a student, educator or administrator. Without consciously realizing it, you may need to shift (or, you may have already shifted) some of your hierarchy of values. Try writing out your values. What is most important to you right now? You might find some contradictions or changes. Remind yourself that you can’t do everything, and that is okay. Aligning your actions with your values is the best you can do. Recognize what holds you back. Are you judging yourself or holding yourself to impossible standards? Are you fearful of the judgement of others? Be gentle with yourself as you let go of some of your previous values and the responsibilities that go along with them as you re-prioritize as a response to crisis. You’re doing the best you can.

Connect with People Who Believe You

The relationship with the term “survivor” can be a delicate dance for many students impacted by interpersonal violence. Many struggle to come to terms with what it means to identify as a “survivor.” Surviving means accepting that you have lived through trauma – and it means recognizing that what happened to you gravely impacted your safety and survival. In many cases, it means recognizing that trauma has changed you. This acceptance often comes hand-in-hand with recognizing that you were truly powerless in a moment. This was, in fact, not your fault. It was someone else taking that power and agency from you. Not every individual who has experienced IPV will identify as a survivor, or as a victim. Not everyone will recognize their experience as a form of violence or trauma. Some may not have yet been given a long enough reprieve from violence — an escape, or end — to begin to process and make sense of their experiences. Naming the experience of interpersonal violence and identifying as a “survivor” is a process of acceptance that can take months, years or decades, and may only come with the balance of support and resources. Many survivors begin to feel seen and heard when they begin to share their experiences with trusted supports — friends or family they confide in who believe them, counseling or mental health resources, Women’s Center advocates and often above all, other survivors.

In response to increased anxiety, fear and isolation from COVID-19, it may be hard to make sense of what is happening and how to respond. Find people who will support, affirm and listen to you (virtually or with safe physical distance). Create boundaries, as best you can, with those who are not supportive, kind and loving of you and your experience. Make space to feel what you feel whether it is happiness, sadness or uncertainty. Allow yourself to move through it, and with a trusted pal, if possible. Share the experiences that impact you no matter how big  or small you think they may be — whether it’s caring for an elderly loved one or walking the wrong way down a newly marked one way grocery aisle.

You might be surprised and reassured that others share similar feelings or experiences. Your experience is valid. Your feelings are valid. Find people you can confide in without judgement about the struggles you are facing (and even, perhaps, some of the judgements you may fear as you focus on new priorities, and previous priorities fall to the side). Be creative and find ways to connect and find social intimacy while practicing physical distancing. Write letters, send e-cards, send text affirmations, make time for phone calls or virtual walks with pals, attend a drop-in session with the Counseling Center or schedule a time to talk to an advocate in the Women’s Center or other trusted resource.

Take it One Day at a Time

In the aftermath of a sexual assault, relationship violence or stalking, survivors often experience a range of emotions as they process through their experience. Questions like, “When will this end?” and “When will my life get back to normal?” are often dreaded questions and daily worries. It can feel nearly impossible to access a place of healing in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. Some days you may feel just fine. The next day you may feel overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, grief or loss. Survivors of IPV learn that healing is not linear, and that the best you can do is focus on creating daily practices to ground yourself in the present moment.

Collectively, in response to COVID-19, we’re faced with many questions like, “What will happen next? Will my loved ones get sick? Will I get sick? When will things go back to normal?” These questions may have already crossed our minds as we navigate new home situations, confinement and the inability to gather and connect with supportive communities. Students, faculty and staff who have previously experienced interpersonal violence may also be re-triggered by experiencing feelings of confinement similar to the trauma they previously experienced with an abusive or controlling partner.

Some in our community may also have been forced to return to a dangerous household or may now be required to stay in a household that was previously unsafe. Students, faculty and staff who have experienced IPV — or are currently experiencing IPV — must try daily to live and function in the midst of ongoing anxiety and fear without any clear map of if, how and when relief will come. Be gentle with yourself on the hard days, and there will be hard days. Many of us, survivors of interpersonal violence included, have experienced crisis before, and we all have tools in our toolboxes for navigating trauma and crisis that we can learn from in this moment of collective uncertainty. Remind yourself on the hard days that this too shall pass, and tomorrow is a new day.

As a Wolfpack community, we may be physically distant from those we love and trust, but we are not alone. My hope is, as we collectively respond to COVID-19, that this experience will deepen our understanding and recognition of the varied ways our communities and loved ones are impacted by all forms of trauma, from this current global pandemic to the pervasive global crisis of interpersonal violence. I hope these connections will deepen understanding and empathy for survivors of IPV and raise awareness of the many struggles survivors of IPV experience on a daily basis. We will continue to face challenges, share our tools and grow stronger and more resilient as a campus community, on campus or otherwise.

If you or someone you know is experiencing relationship violence, sexual violence or stalking and are in need of advocacy services, the Women’s Center has trained advocates available to offer virtual crisis intervention, emotional support, resources and referrals. Please contact us at the 24/7 Sexual Assault Helpline at 919.515.4444 or ncsuadvocate@ncsu.edu to be connected with an advocate. If you are in a situation where you are in immediate danger, please call 911. 

If you are a faculty member and a student comes to you for support, believe them. Recognize the strength it has taken for them to confide in you, and you should feel honored they trust you to share and seek your support. Allow them to choose how much they are comfortable sharing without requesting additional details or information. Asking additional personal questions may infringe on their privacy or retraumatize them. If a student requests an extension or academic accommodation, recognize the leadership they are demonstrating by advocating for themselves and their academic needs. Know that you do not have to support student survivors alone, and you, too, can connect with resources through the Women’s Center and the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity through Safe at NC State.

Carlyn Wright-Eakes (she/her) is the interpersonal violence prevention education coordinator in the Women’s Center.