Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the COVID-19 Pandemic:
How Social Isolation and Societal Changes Can Shift Our Coping Strategies
During the Coronavirus outbreak, a host of unnerving feelings have started to settle in and become unsettlingly familiar. If you have stared down grocery store aisles with hand sanitizer or toilet paper nowhere in sight; driven by overcrowded hospitals and watched under-protected staff setting up testing centers in vacant parking lots; seen people in cars with latex gloves gripping steering wheels and makeshift masks covering their noses and mouths; noticed the eerie silence that now follows ambulance sirens speeding down empty streets, you are aware of how these new experiences shape the reality we now encounter.
Fallacies that Can Follow into the Future
Given the many stressors connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, the rising possibility of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms among people on the frontlines and those adhering to social distancing is all too real. In both social isolation and essential occupation workplaces, fear of the unknown is persistently present. Non-stop news coverage and social stigmatization may also bring a “contaminated” self-fulfilling prophecy to those stricken with the sickness. This mindset can carry on even after the respiratory illness has passed.
After the SARS outbreak in 2003, studies showed that healthcare workers and those who self-quarantined did indeed exhibit PTSD symptoms (Stieg, 2020), while the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 gathered similar parallels (US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 2011).
The Invisible Indications
PTSD symptoms may be masked in plain sight. These can encompass all five senses, but are not always easy to detect. They can range from minor fluctuations to significant changes in behavior: shifting moods, negative self-thoughts, invasive memories, irritability, trouble sleeping and focusing, flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, avoidance, overt alertness, outbursts of anger, emotional numbness, detachment, depression, and extreme flight and fight responses.
Correlation, Not Causation
No one knows for certain what brings on the burdens of PTSD. It’s speculated that during trauma, the brain cannot process the influx of information and feelings in a typical fashion, forcing the brain to put conscious memories into a closet, so to speak, to be opened, unexpectedly, at a later date.
Of course, this does not mean that as a result of COVID-19 and social isolation, everyone is going to experience PTSD. Defined by the American Psychiatric Association, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, and have strong emotional reactions that follow, sometimes lasting long after the incident.
However, the word “trauma” is highly subjective. What you deem distressing relies on your personal experiences, perceptions, and responses. Those who lack sufficient support systems, have a prior history of trauma, have lost loved ones, or experienced unemployment due to the Coronavirus are at significant risk. Secondhand experiences from knowing someone who has been dramatically affected by the pandemic also can put you at risk.
“It’s all in your head”
Brain imaging studies during the past decade place emphasis on two brain structures associated with PTSD, the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala is associated with how we input and process emotions like fear. The amygdala is typically hyperactive and responsible for setting off “false alarms” in those with PTSD, sending out stress signals as if stuck in danger mode. The hippocampus connects with memory. Those with PTSD have a loss of volume in their hippocampus, attributing to memory deficits in many diagnosed. When emotions enter the mind of someone with PTSD, the amygdala and hippocampus interact in a neural circuit turned circus, translating hyperactive emotions in an attempt to sort out its after-effects.
“When we know better, we do better” — Maya Angelou
From biological and social-emotional standpoints, PTSD compromises one’s capacity to cope, and during the COVID-19 crisis, this is more evident than ever. When reminded of the distress, symptoms can range from slight to severe. It is essential to understand that what is typical for one case may not be the collective experience of another. And although there is no cure for PTSD, there are ways to reprocess the repressed memories. In her TEDTalk on how PTSD affects the brain, Dr. Janet Seahorn took aim at the word “disorder” in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Dr. Seahorn explained that, from a neurological perspective, PTSD is instead, a primal re-order of networks and sensory pathways to survive.
Positive and Protective Actions Against PTSD
If you believe you are experiencing PTSD symptoms, or if a mental health professional has already diagnosed you, here are 10 coping mechanisms to help you manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
• Develop a reliable system of support for social and emotional security.
• Talk as openly as you can with people you trust. Talking helps you see events through other perspectives.
• Implement daily routines for consistency; stability in any form can be useful for your success.
•Practice mindfulness techniques and recognize internal triggers. Our inner thoughts and voices guide our behavior, so be self-aware and try to stay in the present. Monitor habits that may not be helping, too. If you are overexposed to the news, for instance, know when to shut it off.
• Have your homebody habits ready to go (e.g., reading, videogames, jogging, etc.) to help you relax. With social distancing restrictions in place, it’s easy to feel a lack of control.
• Reset your breathing with meditation, yoga, or tai chi.
• Get creative! Break up monotonies and opportunities to overthink by having themed dinners, game nights.
• Track your feelings and PTSD progress through journaling.
• Give and get alone time. Find positive ways to be serene in your personal space.
• Practice patience. There’s no need to feel guilty on a good day; just enjoy it.
Are you a Goodwin student looking to connect with a counselor?
Telephone and video conferences are available to students by contacting Janet Concatelli in Student Affairs at 860-913-2043 or JConcatelli@goodwin.edu.
American Psychiatric Association . (n.d.). What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder? Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd
Cohen, Ph.D., H., & Psyc Central. (2020, January 17). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Causes. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/ptsd/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-causes/
John Muir Health. (n.d.). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Tips for Coping. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://www.johnmuirhealth.com/health-education/conditions-treatments/mental-health/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd.html
Psychology Today, & Barbash Ph.D., E. (2020, March 24). Coronavirus: The Psychological Trauma and PTSD Event. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/trauma-and-hope/202003/coronavirus-the-psychological-trauma-and-ptsd-event
Staggs, LICSW, MSW, MPH, S. (2020, January 17). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/ptsd/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-symptoms/
Stieg, C. (2020, April 18). Could you get PTSD from your pandemic experience? The long-term mental health effects of coronavirus. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/17/long-term-mental-health-ptsd-effects-of-covid-19-pandemic-explained.html
US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. (2011, July 1). Predictors of symptoms of posttraumatic stress in Chinese university students during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. Retrieved April 24, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3539574/
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