The pandemic may increase the risk of PTSD for some

July 22, 2020 Swedish Health Team

Experts warn the aftermath of COVID-19 could include a rise in the number of people who experience PTSD

  • A series of small traumas can have a major impact on your mental health.
  • Don’t ignore the warning signs.
  • Help is available if you need it.

[2 MIN READ]

Do you feel anxious all the time? Are you nervous, fearful and more irritable than usual? Are you filled with a sense of unease? These could be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. And experts say we could be seeing more of it as time passes and we continue to deal with the impact this major shift has had on our lives.

"There is going to be a long-term effect of what we're going through," said Amanda Eskola, MSW, LICSW, a Behavioral Health Provider in Primary Care with Swedish. “There’s a sense of the unknown that's causing people a lot of anxiety. What will life be like post COVID-19? You'll see it increase in the months to come," she predicts.

Many people associate PTSD as being related to war or physical assault—the type of event that causes trauma with a capital "T". But the symptoms of PTSD can also develop after a series of small, meaningful traumatic events that disrupt your life and fill you with uncertainty—creating “small t” trauma. And as many of us have discovered over the last several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought its share of both types.

Issues like isolation from sheltering-in-place, unemployment, increased stress and financial challenges combined with health concerns can easily combine to create PTSD symptoms.

Issues like isolation from sheltering-in-place, unemployment, increased stress and financial challenges combined with the health concerns that have taken over so much of our daily lives recently are all traumatic events that can easily combine to create PTSD symptoms.

"When we experience those smaller things over time, sometimes we don't see them as trauma, but they obviously can be. It depends on the individual,” said Amanda.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a disorder that can develop after experiencing any traumatic event regardless of the danger involved. You can experience trauma from a wide range of sources. And what’s traumatic to you may not be traumatic for someone else.

There are several PTSD symptoms to be aware of after you experience both small or large “T” events, including:

  • Nightmares
  • Upsetting memories and flashbacks
  • Extreme stress or irritability
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Avoiding people and activities you once enjoyed

Who is at risk for PTSD?

Nearly anyone can be at risk for PTSD. Your perceptions and reactions to the events that happen to you and others around you are uniquely your own and it can be difficult to predict their long-term effects.

History shows us that after the SARS epidemic, at least 10 percent of hospital frontline workers and those who were quarantined experienced high levels of PTSD symptoms. A recent study examining the mental impact on healthcare workers in healthcare facilities in China found that a large percentage of providers reported experiencing anxiety, depression, insomnia, and distress due to their experiences with COVID-19. And a detailed look at several hundred COVID-19 patients reported similar results. 

Your risk of PTSD could be higher if you cared for someone with COVID-19, lost a loved one to the virus or have been a patient yourself. 

Your risk of PTSD could be higher if you cared for someone with COVID-19, lost a loved one to the virus or have been a patient yourself. Economic hardship, food insecurity or unemployment can also increase the probability that you'll experience challenges with handling the pandemic's aftermath.

What can I do to reduce my risk of PTSD?

There are practical steps you can take to reduce the effect of PTSD on your life. Whether COVID-19 brought you an earthquake or a series of tremors, there are things you can do to lessen its impact on your mental health.

“Don’t compare your trauma to someone else’s trauma or situation,” said Amanda. “What you are going through is true to you."

“Don’t compare your trauma to someone else’s trauma or situation,” said Amanda. “What you are going through is true to you. That’s your experience. You can’t diminish that because someone else might have it perceivably worse than you.”

The National Center for PTSD has compiled a list of tips that can help. You can also reach out the Swedish Behavioral Health team for guidance.

Stay connected. 

Maintain your connections with the people you care about and who offer positive reinforcement and interactions. Even if you can’t be in the same room, there are still a variety of ways to reach out and offer companionship and support and receive it for yourself in return.

Use technology that's increasingly available to bring members of your family into one screen when they can't all be in the same room. Or go old-school and send a card to let someone know you're thinking about them. Be flexible and creative.

“Take advantage of all the ways we can stay connected now,” said Amanda.

If watching the daily news is stressing you out, try cutting back on how often you check the daily headlines. Limit social media and screen time if it keeps you anxious and on-edge. 

Cultivate calm

Develop effective strategies to help self-soothe and destress more effectively. If watching the daily news is stressing you out, try cutting back on how often you check the daily headlines. Limit social media and screen time if it keeps you anxious and on-edge. Practice slow breathing techniques and muscle relaxation or take up yoga or an exercise routine that you enjoy and keeps you active.

Improve your sense of control

Cut yourself some slack. It’s perfectly normal to be stressed, nervous, afraid and uncertain when your life feels out of control. Develop a list of strategies that you can use to help handle the assaults on your mental health before they become overwhelming. Preparation can make you feel more capable of handling the circumstances in your life. Increase the positive behaviors that have helped you in the past.

Remain hopeful

Consider your current situation within a broader context with a long-term perspective of its place in your life’s history. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures. Examine your strengths and build upon them when possible.

When is it time to ask for help?

After a trauma of any kind, it's natural to experience symptoms afterward as your body and mind adapt to your altered circumstances or perceptions. It may be time to get professional help if your symptoms:

  • Linger longer than a few months
  • Are intensely upsetting
  • Disrupt your daily life

“When the symptoms become so distressing to you that you’re not able to function on a daily basis, that’s when you need to get help. That’s when you want to reach out,” said Amanda. “Life happens to all of us. We don’t have to go through it alone. We’re all human.”

 

If you need care, don’t delay. Learn more about your options.

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Find a doctor

Get the help you need to handle the traumatic events in your life—whatever they are. The Swedish Behavioral Health team can guide you on a path to recovery. Or, if you need a doctor, you can find one you can trust in our provider directory.

Related resources

PTSD: National Center for PTSD

Washington hospitals urge people not to delay care because of COVID-19 concerns

Insights and advice for managing uncertainty

Understanding situational depression

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

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