Medical professionals are pushed to the brink trying to save the lives of those battling COVID-19. Families and friends are socially distanced, jobs are being lost and children’s educational (not to mention social and emotional) needs are being put to the test. All this is compounded with the fact that we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring with this novel disease.
Thankfully, we’re not participating in a real-life “Contagion”, but the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. And, many people, and experts alike, wonder if this upheaval and trauma will lead to or worsen mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“We do know that it’s normal to feel different after a traumatic event,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “What we don’t know yet is the long-term impact and effects of COVID-19. Most people who experience trauma begin to feel better after a few weeks. But for some, there is the possibility they could experience PTSD.”
What is PTSD?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD “is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.” It can develop from a single, isolated event or from more chronic, recurrent traumatic experiences.
We typically associate these types of traumatic events with service members and veterans, but anyone can develop PTSD—man, woman or child. While some PTSD happens as a result of a serious accident or sudden, unexpected death, it can also occur as a result of domestic or childhood abuse and physical assault.
The good news is that while 70% of all Americans will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, we can and do recover from trauma.
How do you know if you have PTSD from COVID-19?
As mentioned, it’s very normal to experience some symptoms after a traumatic event, such as nightmares, flashbacks and emotional swings, for a few weeks before slowly improving. It’s when these symptoms continue to mess with your daily life and mental health.
“You could say we all are experiencing some PTSD-like symptoms from the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that we’ll have a diagnosable disorder that we will need treatment for,” Dr. Fox said. “You’ll need to meet with your doctor who can appropriately diagnose."
Typically, PTSD symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event but can occur years later. For a clear diagnosis, you’ll need to have experienced the following symptoms for more than a month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom (flashbacks or nightmares)
- At least one avoidance symptom (avoiding people, places and activities that are triggering)
- At least two arousal or reactivity symptoms (difficulty sleeping, sudden outbursts)
- At least two negative thought and mood symptoms (loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, feeling like your life has been cut short)
“The hard part is that for so many, like our healthcare workers, we’re still in the midst of chaos,” Dr. Fox said. “It remains to be seen the long-term impact, but one thing for sure is that treating these wounds should be part of our recovery plan moving forward. Thankfully, it’s becoming more evident that our mental health is just as critical as our physical health.”
Helpful Tips for Coping with Trauma and Stress
How you respond to the stressors of COVID-19 can depend on your background, your support system and community, your financial situation, your mental and emotional health and many other factors.
While each one of us can be triggered by something that might not affect the person next to us, it’s important to find healthy ways to cope with trauma surrounding COVID-19. Dr. Fox provided the following tips to help you, a loved one or child navigate this uncertain time.
- Acknowledge this is a difficult time for everyone. Your feelings, emotions and response to COVID-19 aren’t unusual or something to be ignored.
- Stay connected … although socially distanced from friends and family outside of your home. “Connecting with others has been shown to curb symptoms and aid in behavioral health and physical health,” Dr. Fox said. “You don’t have to talk about what’s happening around you if it’s triggering. Only discuss if you find comfort in it."
- Exercise, meditate. Even a brisk 30-minute walk has been shown to decrease depressive symptoms and curb PTSD symptoms.
- Write down small, attainable goals for yourself. Focus on things that you are hopeful about and have control over versus things that are dreadful, harmful and out of your control.
- Commit to gratitude and positive thinking. Today, are you going to dwell on the dreadful and negative or something positive and hopeful? Take steps to reframe and reshape your way of thinking. It takes work, but you’ll be surprised at your incredible ability to change your attitude and behaviors.
“We are constantly hearing about the horrible things going on, let’s hear about some good things,” Dr. Fox said. “Whether that’s watching something like “SomeGoodNews” or starting a gratitude journal and tuning out social media and news reports, you can start shifting the way you think and feel.”
Tips to Help Your Child Cope
- Talk about COVID-19 with your child.
- Remind them they are safe.
- Keep a regular routine or schedule.
- Limit social media and the news, which can be triggering.
- Do things together—play games, take walks, have extra snuggle time on the couch.
Contact Your Doctor or Mental Health Provider
The longer PTSD goes untreated, the more damage PTSD can cause. The symptoms of PTSD can be difficult to cope with, and as a result you can be susceptible to developing unhealthy coping methods, such as alcohol or drugs.
If you’re experiencing PTSD symptoms, talk about them with your doctor or a mental health professional. There are a number of psychological treatments and therapies that are effective at treating PTSD symptoms. Some of these include cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, support groups and other forms of talk therapy.
There are a number of resources available if you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD:
- Banner Behavioral Health: Call the appointment line at 800-254-4357.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Call 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: We can all help prevent suicide. Call 800-273-8255 if you or a loved one is contemplating suicide.
- Find a doctor or behavioral health specialist: Visit bannerhealth.com.
“Through this pandemic, we are learning and will continue to learn so much about this disease and about ourselves—our ability to adapt and become more resilient,” Dr. Fox said. “It’s also helping us as medical professionals to rethink the way we do things. We realize more and more everyday how mental health is important to physical health. It’s important that we care for both and help each other mentally and physically through this traumatic period of our lives.”