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What is Pandemic PTSD and What Can Be Done About It?

  Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, acute stress levels throughout the world have been rising as the consequences become more widespread and apparent. Loss of loved ones, fear for one’s life and health, uncertainty about the future, and social isolation are a few of the many factors that lead to extreme stress in the general public. While most can bounce back from long-term stress or trauma, or even a single traumatic event, some develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In addition, several studies reveal that community members commonly show severe psychological stress through depression, anxiety, and addictive and disruptive behaviors. COVID-19 produced a phenomenon of shared trauma, pain, and anxiety.  The media continues to display images of suffering while reporting the number of COVID-19 related cases and deaths.  In modern society, it is close to impossible not to be immersed in COVID-19 information.  In addition, the debate over-vaccination and wearing masks causes increased stress and fear.  Before discussing pandemic-specific stress, let’s examine what PTSD looks like.

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

PTSD is often used to describe symptoms experienced by veterans. Former military members are perhaps the most concentrated subset of people who have experienced ongoing or significant trauma that results in PTSD.  However, PTSD can occur in anyone who’s experienced trauma. Symptoms of PTSD:
  • Recurring and involuntary thoughts, memories, and distressing dreams
  • A feeling of reliving the traumatic event
  • Intense psychological distress to cues relating to the trauma
  • Avoidance of thoughts, people, or cues that relate to the event
  • Amnesia associated with the trauma
  • Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs about oneself and others
  • Distorted thoughts about the cause and consequences of the trauma, often self-blame
  • Feeling detached from others and being noticeably uninterested in previous passions or hobbies 
  • Irritability and angry outbursts that are seeming without cause
  • Being hyper-aware of threats and dangers
  • Reckless and self-destructive behavior
  • Being easily and over startled
  • Difficulty sleeping and concentrating 
  • Difficulty sustaining close relationships.
Trauma, including those relating to COVID-19, may result in these symptoms.  The world is experiencing pandemic PTSD on an extraordinary scale.

What Does Pandemic PTSD Look Like?

The estimated prevalence of PTSD varies.  The authors of “Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorders After Infectious Disease Pandemics in the Twenty-First Century, Including COVID-19: A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review,” published February 2021 in Molecular Psychiatry estimate that 20% of the population is experiencing symptoms of PTSD.  How might this translate to pandemic-specific stress?
  • Panic attacks relating to being or becoming ill, loved ones becoming ill, leaving the house, or unpredictable negative outcomes.
  • Avoidance of people, activities, or places associated with contracting the illness or a possibility of doing so. 
  • Extreme negative perceptions about oneself or others because of contracting the illness or attempts to avoid it.
  • Depressive symptoms, including a lack of interest in hobbies, friends, and outings.
  • Easily and overly alarmed of cues related to COVID-19, such as coughs, sneezes, and proximity to others.
  • Feelings of hopelessness. 
  • Recklessness with one’s health or the health of others.
  • Nightmares, restlessness, or insomnia are related to stress over the health of one’s self or others.
  • Fear of illness that results in conflict and distance in previously close relationships.
Highly stressful situations on the world population, such as the pandemic, are bound to have negative consequences for mental health across the globe. Is there a way to improve these symptoms?

3 Tips to Cope With Pandemic PTSD

It is crucial to seek professional help when a life-altering mental health event occurs.  In addition, some techniques may help reduce the stress associated with the pandemic. #1 Exposure Journaling Recounting in detail the event or cues related to the trauma may help the brain become less reactionary about those cues. Exposure to safe stimuli related to the trauma may also be helpful; since COVID-19 is still a threat, this application may be limited. #2 Meditate and Practice Mindfulness Stress and anxiety come from the unknown, the unpredictable, and the uncontrollable. Focus on the current moment, what you can control, and let go of the things you can’t.  Focusing on an uncertain future rather than the present moment can lead to stress and panic.  #3 Reach out to loved ones Social support offers significant symptom relief of trauma and stress. Have meaningful conversations, ask for help when needed, and allow yourself to depend on others when you are feeling isolated.  Consider online social groups to overcome the restrictions of social distancing. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder results from prolonged stress from a single traumatic event or series of events. PTSD is rare, but its prevalence is on the rise during the global pandemic. Research indicates that communities suffer during major disasters; the world is suffering as the pandemic continues. Symptoms of pandemic PTSD include social isolation, avoidance of pandemic cues, negative thoughts about oneself or others, depression, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and panic. Consider practicing exposure journaling to retrain your brain’s response to frightening stimuli. Meditate and practice mindfulness to develop acceptance. Finally, reach out to your loved ones. The stress of this magnitude should not be dealt with alone. Social isolation can worsen symptoms of PTSD.  However, social support can help. PTSD is a serious disorder that may require medication and specialized treatment. Call or text Casa Recovery at (888) 928-2272 to discuss how we can help you find coping mechanisms and treatment for your PTSD symptoms.

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