The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken every country and the systems within those countries to the core. It is easy to see how the pandemic has impacted the healthcare system, the economic system, educational systems and even, our going to places as benign as the grocery store. One area that is not talked about extensively, is the impact the pandemic has had on the mental health of billions around the globe. There is research that shows that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of people who lived through it, could have far-reaching consequences. Amongst those consequences are psychological trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s important to note that psychological trauma is different from PTSD.
Psychological trauma refers to damage to the mind as a result of a distressing event. Psychological trauma is time-limited and the individual may not have long-term effects from the distressing event. PTSD on the other hand refers to the long-term effects of the traumatic event that include experiencing flashbacks of the event and reliving the trauma. PTSD can go on for years. People with the condition cannot simply “get over it”.
COVID-19 can be the cause of either condition.
Sources of COVID-19 psychological trauma
The pandemic can trigger psychological trauma and/or PTSD in multiple ways. Here are some of those triggers.
- The death of a loved one or acquaintance due to COVID-19
- Contracting COVID-19
- The fear of contracting COVID-19 if a person has underlying health issues that make them more vulnerable to the disease
- Job loss or loss of business income due to the pandemic
- News reports of increasing number of positive COVID-19 infections daily as well as the reports of deaths – even if we don’t know those people
- A change in routine. Children are now home from school and in many states and countries, they will not be going back until next year. For people who have children, this profound change in routine can be psychologically disturbing as they now feel less in control of their daily schedules.
- Having to practice increased safety measures like washing hands constantly or wearing masks.
- Continued social isolation that keeps people away from visiting and interacting with the ones they love.
In addition to all these, for a person that already has underlying mental health problems, the added stress of the pandemic can increase their risk for trauma or PTSD.
Furthermore, civil unrest and on-going problems around the world can add to an already emotionally-charged year.
Symptoms to watch out for
For psychological trauma, symptoms to look out for include:
- Feeling sad and hopeless
- Confusion and difficulty concentrating
- Guilt and self-blame – especially if a loved one has died from the condition and this individual feels they could have done something to stop it
- Feeling disconnected or numb
- Nightmares, which impair sleep. This could be a trigger for anxiety all on its’ own
- Bodily aches and pains
- Muscle tension
- Uncontrollable or racing heartbeats
- Unusual reports of feeling tired
Over time and with the right help, most people recover from psychological trauma.
In certain circumstances however such as in the case of someone losing a loved one suddenly to COVID-19, some people could develop PTSD. As we mentioned before, PTSD is chronic. Before a doctor diagnoses someone with PTSD, they have to exhibit the following for at least one month.
- At least one re-experiencing symptom. Re-experiencing symptoms include flashbacks, bad dreams and frightening thoughts.
- At least one avoidance symptom. This is when people stay away from places or objects or people that remind them of the trauma. It also includes staying away from thoughts and ideas related to the trauma.
- At minimum two arousal and reactivity symptoms. These include being easily startled, outbursts of anger, edginess and difficulty sleeping.
- At least two cognitive and mood symptoms. These include negative thoughts about oneself or about the world, deep and distorted feelings of guilt and/or shame and a loss of interest in activities a person once enjoyed.
People struggling with psychological trauma may experience some of these same symptoms for a few weeks after the traumatic event. It develops into PTSD if these symptoms last for longer than one month.
Is it possible to keep psychological trauma from turning into PTSD?
It’s important to note that psychological trauma and PTSD can happen to anybody and at any age. However, there are some risk factors that make it more likely for people who have experienced psychological trauma to develop PTSD later.
Everyone deals with trauma differently and heals at different rates. However, some people will develop PTSD while others will not. Is it possible to keep psychological trauma from turning into PTSD? Research shows that early psychological intervention can prevent the long-term effects of psychological trauma. Thus, it is possible in the COVID-19 era to reduce the risk of developing PTSD.
Working with a mental health professional who uses cognitive behavioral therapy shows significant reductions in the symptoms of PTSD by 60-80%.
Thus, if this season and all of its happenings have been especially difficult for you, speak with a licensed mental health professional so that you can begin to move on to the road to recovery.