The COVID-19 pandemic has many potential sources of trauma, such as experiencing the death of a loved one. For some people, this can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also exacerbate existing PTSD symptoms.
People with PTSD experience persistent and invasive symptoms following a traumatic event.
This article will discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic might lead to or worsen PTSD, as well as how to cope with the symptoms.
PTSD can affect people differently.
The condition relates to witnessing, learning about, or experiencing trauma in some way. Someone may experience the trauma directly or through a loved one.
Symptoms typically develop soon after the trauma, but they can sometimes develop months or years later.
There are four symptom types that characterize PTSD. These are:
- Reexperiencing the trauma: A person may have nightmares or experience flashbacks.
- Avoiding certain situations: A person may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic experience.
- Experiencing negative changes in emotions and beliefs: A person may experience changes in the way they think about themselves and others around them. They may also forget about parts of the event and be unable to experience loving feelings toward others.
- Experiencing hyperarousal: Those with PTSD may experience difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and they may become easily startled.
If any of these symptoms persist for longer than 4 weeks, a healthcare professional may diagnose PTSD.
Some people who have acquired SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, may go on to develop a severe illness that requires hospitalization. This experience may cause trauma for them and for anyone close to them.
Others may experience trauma from the environment that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, such as:
- being unable to see loved ones
- having feelings of isolation
- experiencing disruption to daily lives and routines
Others may also experience grief due to the death of a loved one.
Frontline hospital staff and other key workers have a higher chance of experiencing mental health conditions during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created stressful working environments for many people. Having regular contact with people who experience severe symptoms of COVID-19 or die from it may become traumatic over time.
According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, tips for coping with stress during the pandemic include:
Staying aware of safety measures
Keeping safe may help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Try to stay up to date on safety advice from government and medical bodies.
A person can also stay safe by following these hygiene measures:
- regularly washing the hands for 20 seconds each time
- covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing
- making plans in case someone in the home becomes ill
Talking to friends, family, and others on a regular basis may help reduce feelings of isolation.
This could involve texting, making phone calls, or sending an email.
Using techniques to stay calm
This might include anything from practicing yoga to eating well. For some, it might involve taking medication or avoiding stressors, such as watching the news.
People can also help reduce their stress levels by being prepared. For example, if they are unable to regularly leave the home, they may want to put together a kit with enough supplies to last 3–5 days.
Focusing on a sense of control
A person can also try to improve their sense of control and ability to endure stressful situations.
For example, accepting circumstances that they are unable to change and focusing on what they can do may help reduce stress levels.
A person can help themselves stay positive by:
- maintaining a long-term perspective and looking to the future
- being patient and kind to themselves
- celebrating any successes
- taking breaks and doing enjoyable activities
If a person experiences symptoms of PTSD, they should seek help.
For people who experience persistent or severe symptoms that last longer than a few months, it may be necessary to contact a doctor or psychiatrist.
This is particularly important when the PTSD has a major impact on a person’s daily life.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America can help with finding professional help, including therapy.
Some people may benefit from trying self-help approaches to ease PTSD symptoms. This might involve learning coping strategies for stress, practicing mindfulness, or joining peer support groups.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs have a range of self-help resources for people with PTSD.
Other people may require help from others. This might involve reaching out to friends and family members for support. It could also involve contacting a doctor or psychiatrist for professional help.
Several options for professional help are available on the National Institute of Mental Health website.
To care for someone with PTSD, people can:
- Learn about it: Understanding the effects of PTSD may help with understanding what that person is experiencing.
- Help manage their medication: A person can help support someone with PTSD by helping keep track of their medication.
- Listen: A person can let them know that they are there to listen, but they should not put pressure on them to talk about their symptoms.
- Encourage contact with other people: This may help the person build a support system.
If someone has PTSD, they may experience negative or suicidal thoughts. A person should not ignore any comments regarding self-harm, death, or wanting to die.
If a person is in crisis, anyone caring for them should contact a therapist or doctor. They can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
If the person is experiencing anger
Someone with PTSD may feel angry. If this anger leads to violent behavior, a person should get to a safe place and call for help.
However, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, if someone with PTSD is angry, it may help to implement a “timeout” system. This can help with communication.
- Parties should agree that they can call a timeout at any point.
- Parties should agree that if a person calls a timeout, discussion stops immediately.
- Parties should agree on a signal, such as a word or hand signal, to call a timeout.
- Parties should let each other know what they will be doing during the timeout and when the discussion can continue.
After a timeout, parties should focus on calmly discussing solutions to the problem.
Tips for carers
Looking after someone with PTSD can be stressful. It is important for those looking after someone to also take care of themselves.
If a person is looking after someone with PTSD, they should:
- Not feel guilty: It is normal to feel helpless and to not know all the answers.
- Take care of their mental health: A person should take time for themselves and do something they enjoy as often as possible.
- Take care of their physical health: Getting regular exercise may help a person cope with stress.
- Eat a healthful diet: This can help boost a person’s energy levels.
Treatment for PTSD can involve several forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help a person change unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors. It may also help them develop coping strategies.
Exposure therapy is one form of CBT. This can help people with PTSD by exposing them to the traumatic memories in a safe environment.
During the current pandemic, it may be difficult to obtain psychiatric help. According to a 2019 study, however, telepsychiatry can be an effective method of treatment for those with PTSD.
Another option for treatment is medication. For example, a doctor or psychiatrist might prescribe antidepressant medications to help with the symptoms of PTSD.
There are many possible sources of trauma that might lead to or worsen PTSD during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also, physical distancing and other lockdown measures can create challenges for treatment in some people.
Some people with PTSD may benefit from trying self-help approaches. Having sources of social support is also important.
Other people may require professional help or medication.