Pandemic Trauma: COVID-19 Impact And What to do About It

Psychological Trauma is defined as a direct threat to one’s life, serious physical injury, sexual violence, and/or witnessing an unexpected death, immediate threat to life, or physical injury to another person.

Psychological trauma is common, with estimates of up to 60-85% of people have experienced trauma within their lifetime. Reactions to trauma are common and can include intrusive thoughts, nightmares, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, self-blame, being “on edge,” concern for safety, irritability, and concentration problems. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can develop after experiencing a psychological trauma when these reactions persist for a month or more and cause substantial distress and disruption in one’s life. PTSD is much less common than trauma exposure. An estimated 6% of men and 10% of women experience PTSD within their lifetime.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Presence of intrusive symptoms, such as
    • Experiencing recurrent and intrusive memories of the trauma
    • Nightmares or flashbacks of the trauma
  • Avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, such as
    • Avoiding distressing memories of the trauma
    • Avoiding the location or people associated with the trauma
  • Negative effects on mood, such as
    • Feelings of guilt, anger, or shame
    • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Increased arousal, such as
    • Trouble sleeping
    • Hypervigilance

Trauma and the COVID Pandemic

COVID-19 has quickly become a global health emergency resulting in not only physical health concerns but also psychological concerns as people are exposed to unexpected deaths or threats of death. For example, healthcare workers who have close contact with COVID patients are not only exposed to the virus on a regular basis, but they may also be witnessing increased illnesses, deaths, and supply shortages. In addition, patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 experience social isolation, physical discomfort, and fear of survival. These exposures increase the risk of developing PTSD. In addition, the risk may further be enhanced during the subsequent weeks when these individuals may lack immediate social support due to the need to self-quarantine.

While the pandemic itself does not formally meet the criteria for causing PTSD, many of the same issues can result from this widespread and overwhelming event. Additionally, certain crises during the pandemic can trigger anxiety and fear, such as the loss of a family member or sudden loss of employment or income.

Further, our experience during the pandemic shows that children may demonstrate different signs of PTSD than adults. For example, children ages 6–11 may show extreme withdrawal, disruptive behavior, and/or an inability to pay attention. Other common actions in children may include regressive behaviors, nightmares, sleep problems, irrational fears, irritability, refusal to attend school, and outbursts of anger or fighting. The child may have somatic complaints with no medical basis. Schoolwork often suffers, and depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt, and emotional numbing are often present.

U.S. crisis centers already report being flooded with calls. The Well Being Trust, a foundation that focuses on mental health issues, predicts the pandemic could cause 75,000 “deaths of despair” from suicide or addiction.

Not everyone will have a problem, experts say. And there are ways for everyone to support people at risk.

But the past offers a warning. After the 2003 epidemic of SARS or severe acute respiratory syndrome, studies in Hong Kong found that 40% of the survivors had post-traumatic stress symptoms.

A study involved 129 people quarantined in Toronto because of SARS. About 30% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. More time in quarantine was associated with more symptoms.

If you struggle with a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, or if you experienced past trauma, you may be more likely to develop PTSD. You may also be more likely to develop PTSD if you:

  • Lost a loved one to COVID-19
  • Were infected with COVID-19 yourself, especially if you were seriously ill
  • Are you a frontline healthcare worker or a first responder
  • Lost your job or have financial concerns
  • Have witnessed severe illness or death.

PTSD won’t be the only mental health consequence of the pandemic, as predicted by experts. Other mental health issues will likely emerge, such as increases in depression, anxiety, addiction and even suicide..

Managing your stress now, and getting help for PTSD if you have it, can protect your mental well-being in the long term.

There are several ways to cope during the pandemic:

Prevention – Self-Care, is also a key step. A great way to prevent symptoms from developing or from increasing is to take care of yourself. Having a healthy lifestyle and routine becomes very important. Specifically, avoiding substances (alcohol, tobacco, drugs) is imperative. There has been a tendency for increased substance abuse during the pandemic as a way to self-medicate. This is very risky, not just because of the obvious effects of substances, but also because this might increase the chances of getting addicted. Adopting positive habits such as frequent exercising, meditation, yoga, mindfulness, etc. is very helpful. Also, eating healthy and maintaining good sleeping patterns become added protective factors.

Social Support and Interaction. We are social beings and the pandemic has contributed to severe isolation. We need to recognize this need and find safe ways to maintain a healthy level of interaction with others. We need to be creative using technology such as video calls, phone calls, etc. Also, we can find safe ways to meet with others in-person by meeting in an open space with proper social distance (a park, in the yard, etc.). Having the opportunity to talk to others, stay connected, and share our frustrations and difficulties becomes critical.

Keep negativity away. Controlling our exposure to the news and to social media is necessary. We can still stay updated with the latest, important news without over-exposing ourselves. Also, we want to be supportive of others. However, we need to establish healthy limits and be careful that in supporting others we don’t get suck into a dark place. If we sense that someone we care for is overwhelmed we can suggest that they seek help and support they pursue this.

Being self-aware and having insight into the possible presence of symptoms. Understanding the symptoms can help you identify the need to address this. For this, you might want to try different options. One is to educate yourself on PTSD and its symptoms and monitor closely. Or, even better yet, consulting with a PTSD-trained specialist can also help you either rule this out or, if needed, seek treatment. It is important to seek treatment as early as possible to prevent traumatic events to accumulate and also to find tools to address these symptoms. Contact a trained psychologist that can help in mitigating and eliminating these symptoms while identifying coping strategies tailored to your needs.