Content Warning: This article discusses PTSD and traumatic events. It contains language regarding the impact and signs of trauma. While this content might be triggering for those directly or recently impacted by traumatic events, we believe difficult conversations are often necessary for education, too. If you’re seeking help and are worried about triggering content, you might have a trusted loved one review it first. If you are in a life-threatening situation, please call +1 (800) 273-8255 or use these resources to get immediate help.
The global coronavirus pandemic is a collective trauma, but that doesn’t mean we’re all having the same experience. There’s a high likelihood, for example, that people with previous trauma are having increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies have shown that this population will be retraumatized when they are exposed to a new stressful event. Essentially, that means the impact of coronavirus might feel more significant and the recovery time might be longer in comparison to people without prior trauma.
If you feel that your stress-related symptoms are getting worse (e.g. heightened awareness of your surroundings, flashbacks, or avoidance), it could be caused by the re-triggering effects of coronavirus. By increasing self-care and social support networks, these symptoms can be more easily managed and you can take steps toward recovery. This is a challenging time to have difficult feelings, but you might find that it’s also the path towards a better future, regardless of what tomorrow holds for all of us.
What is Trauma?
Experiencing trauma, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll be negatively affected by it. Most people recover and store the bad memory away where it doesn’t interfere with their daily lives. For fewer than 10% of those exposed to trauma, the event will cause larger psychological problems and result in a diagnosis of PTSD. Statistically, you’re at a higher risk for PTSD if you’re female, have pre-existing psychiatric conditions, or a brain structure that’s highly reactive. Lower IQs, socioeconomic status and lack of social support are also risk factors. That said, anyone can develop PTSD and it’s important to remove the stigma for populations that are less likely to seek mental health support including military soldiers, refugees, firefighters, and police officers.
What are the Symptoms of Trauma & PTSD?
Symptoms of trauma and PTSD can be both emotional and physical, and can be experienced as part of the body’s natural short-term response to trauma, or can be experienced long-term as part of the post-traumatic-stress-disorder condition. For a clinical PTSD diagnosis, trauma symptoms need to be persistent for at least one month, which separates the body’s regulated response to trauma from the deeper effects that negatively alter a person’s life.
Emotional symptoms of trauma:
- Shock, denial, or disbelief.
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating.
- Anger, irritability, mood swings.
- Anxiety and fear.
- Guilt, shame, self-blame.
- Withdrawing from others.
- Feeling sad or hopeless.
- Feeling disconnected or numb.
Physical symptoms of trauma:
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
- Being startled easily
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing heartbeat
- Edginess and agitation
- Aches and pains
- Muscle tension
This doesn’t mean, however, that symptoms appear right after the trauma. In some cases, the effects won’t become apparent for several months, or even years, after the event. You may become alert to the possibility of having PTSD if you’re making drastic changes to avoid something that’s distressing, having nightmares, or find yourself easily irritated or agitated. A study on people with combat-related PTSD found that 53% were also depressed and 84% had problems controlling their anger.
How to tell if PTSD Symptoms are Worsening
For those of us living with symptoms of PTSD before the pandemic, it can be hard to tell what’s “normal” and what’s getting worse. We can get so accustomed to symptoms of depression and anxiety that we don’t realize we’ve taken a big step backward in our progress. Additionally, the current situation is asking us to be hypervigilant and socially isolated, two states of being that often come easily to those living with PTSD.
First, it’s important to note that you don’t have to wait until things get dire before you seek help. You deserve calm, peace, and happiness no matter what you went through and no matter what you’re currently experiencing. If you know, or suspect, you have a history of trauma, this is a good time to connect with a therapist to monitor your condition. Sometimes a compassionate but impartial outsider can get a better view of whether your actions fall into the realm of adaptive or, contrarily, that they signal increased PTSD symptoms.
If you’re interested in tracking your symptoms, start with a mood chart or journal. Keep a daily record of thoughts, feelings and emotions. This will help you see changes over time and create the space for self-reflection. Sometimes we feel that things are okay in the moment, but looking back we may find that it was an act of avoidance that’s rooted in trauma.
How to Treat & Manage PTSD
To treat the symptoms of PTSD, researchers recommend increasing your personal self-care routine and connecting to social support networks. Make sure you are treating yourself kindly and doing things that fulfill your emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual needs. This doesn’t mean numbing feelings with TV and junk food, although there’s a time and a place for that. Ultimately you’ll feel better if you’re filling up your tank with good stuff rather than bad stuff. Make art, do yoga, drink a cup of herbal tea, and cook a healthy meal — these are all examples of self-care that can lower your anxiety, depression, anger, and fear. Then, although it can be difficult while we’re staying physically distant from one another, connecting in deep and meaningful conversations with others will help you process your feelings. These interactions can be via a therapist, online group, or phone call with a close friend. Resist the urge to isolate and avoid people — make a deal with yourself to reach out at least once a week.
The good news is that traumatic events are reported to be an opportunity for growth and may include other positive psychological benefits. It has even been found that the higher the distress, the more growth is achieved.
Psychologists call this phenomenon post-traumatic growth (PTG) and believe that symptoms of PTSD can cause people to re-evaluate their lives and find new meaning. The things that you put up with, poor quality friendships or lack of self-care, might no longer be acceptable once coronavirus restrictions are lifted. You might also find that your gratitude increases for things that you previously took for granted, like good health.
The journey from PTSD to PTG is not easy for everyone. Sitting with uncomfortable emotions, engaging with self-awareness techniques, and individual therapy, however, can transform worsening symptoms into a life of more flourishing mental health.