Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is most generally associated with people who experience war, physical assault, or horrific natural disasters (tsunamis, tornados, floods, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, etc.). But mental health experts are now predicting that the current COVID-19 pandemic may also cause PTSD.
What Exactly is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health disorder that results from a traumatic event in which a person believes his life or safety are threatened, whether the threat is real or not.
PTSD is generally characterized by four major symptoms:
- A person may have nightmares or experience flashbacks, where it seems that the traumatic event is happening all over again.
- A person may avoid situations that remind her of the traumatic event.
- A person may experience negative changes in mood or beliefs about themself or the world (“I am bad,” “The whole world is totally dangerous,” “Everyone is untrustworthy”). Other negative emotional results may be anxiety, fear, lack of control, panic, and fear of death.
- A person may experience “hyper-arousal,” in which normal sights or sounds, such as the backfiring of a car, may result in an otherwise abnormal response (running to safety or diving for cover).
If any of these symptoms lasts for more than four weeks, a healthcare professional may diagnose the person with PTSD.
So, bearing in mind the above diagnostic criteria, how might COVID-19 contribute to PTSD?
The Pandemic and PTSD
As a child twenty years ago, T. emigrated with her parents from a war-torn country to seek a better life in Canada. She has bad memories of her former life, when food was scarce, and she and her family were fearful and often went hungry. Life in Canada has provided her with bountiful resources and she has never experienced hunger again.
One day soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began, T. went to the grocery store. She was shocked to find empty shelves that just a week before had been filled with food. She was immediately overcome by feelings of panic and despair—feelings she had not experienced since moving to Canada. That night she had nightmares about never-ending hunger and danger.
Even though the situation was completely different, T. was re-experiencing the trauma of her childhood, caused by the sight of the empty shelves.
H. was a nurse at a hospital in a large metropolitan area. So far, his career had consisted of what he called “happy nursing”—working in reconstructive surgery where the patients were generally delighted with the outcome of their operations. When the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated all medical hands on deck, H. volunteered to assist. Suddenly, he was surrounded by scores of patients dying every day—and he was helpless to prevent it. Moreover, these patients’ families were not allowed anywhere near them. Many people died alone, while their terrified and grieving families stood apart helplessly.
Not only did H. feel overwhelming compassion and sadness, he began to be terrified that he would contract the coronavirus and end up in the same situation as these dying patients. As the pandemic dragged on with no end in sight, fear overpowered him to the point that he could no longer perform his job. He was relieved of his duties, but flashbacks and nightmares continued to haunt him. He was especially triggered when watching news stories about the pandemic that seemed to dog him at every turn.
Who Is At Risk?
You don’t have to be an immigrant from a destitute country or a frontline healthcare worker to develop PTSD from the pandemic.
Those most at risk of PTSD include:
- People who have a lost a loved one to COVID-19. Not being at the bedside of a loved one who is dying of the coronavirus is incredibly difficult. And not being able to hold a funeral adds to the pain. All the things that a society normally does to assist in the bereavement process are no longer available due to social distancing.
- Survivors of the coronavirus. Research shows that there is a lot of PTSD among survivors who have been in the intensive care unit—particularly those who were place on ventilators. Many former ICU patients remember fearing that they were going to die and were at a loss to help themselves.
- People who are affected economically. Unemployment is at historic highs. During such times, when there is no relief in sight, family and partner violence tends to increase. Witnessing or being a victim of such violence can lead to PTSD. Suicide rates are also increasing, causing PTSD symptoms in the survivors.
- Mental health experts say that anyone who has a history of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety is at greater risk of developing PTSD caused by the pandemic.
Protecting Against PTSD
PTSD resulting from the current pandemic is not inevitable, but the past offers a warning. After the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, studies in Hong Kong showed that 40% of survivors had symptoms of PTSD. And Dr. Rima Styra, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto, says, “We’re going to have many more mental health issues as time goes on, and people will refer to it as a mental health pandemic.”
But PTSD resulting from any kind of trauma isn’t necessarily a life-long sentence. And there are ways to minimize the risks of developing PTSD in the first place. Taking care of your mental health now is the best prevention and coping mechanism.
Accept the situation for what it is.
The pandemic is temporary. Vaccines will be developed, and the virus will be controlled.
Be flexible in the way you think. Social distancing won’t last forever. Weddings, graduation ceremonies, and funerals will be held again. We will be able to gather once again for family dinners and worship services. Stores will once again be filled with shoppers. Airline travel and cruises will resume. Hotels, restaurants, and theatres will reopen. Yes, protective measures may be in place in the “new normal,” but everyday life will not be as restrictive as it currently is.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
Get enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition to keep your immune system in top-notch condition. Make sure you have some down time to do what relaxes you, whether it’s meditation, reading a good book, taking a walk, listening to music, or cooking a delicious meal. It’s even all right to escape for a while by binge watching the latest streaming series everyone’s raving about.
Limit news consumption
Constantly viewing the devastation caused by the pandemic, or reminding yourself how many more people have died, can be traumatic. (And don’t forget—many more people have survived the pandemic than have died!) Sometimes it’s hard to drag yourself away from the news but do it anyway and distract yourself with pleasant activities.
There are even some positive news stories out there. A quick Internet search just now produced over 4 billion results!
Reach out for help if you feel yourself floundering
Choosing to white-knuckle it through life is not a sign of strength, nor is seeking counseling or therapy a sign of weakness. Indeed, the strongest among us are those who recognize that they can’t do it alone, that they need others to help them.
Mental health experts can employ a variety of treatment options to alleviate and eliminate symptoms of PTSD. Neurofeedback therapy has shown to be an outstanding and effective tool in relieving symptoms related to PTSD and anxiety. By recruiting the brain’s own mechanisms of neuroplasticity, neurofeedback can help stabilize your emotions, restore your sleep cycles, and provide relief from stress.
Please don’t hesitate to get professional help. There is no need to live with this debilitating condition.