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How the Coronavirus May Impact or Cause PTSD

The coronavirus pandemic has created tough situations worldwide, but for many people, the health emergency has created additional sources of trauma. That trauma could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but could also lead to more severe symptoms for those who already suffer from PTSD.

Trauma affects people differently, and people can have different levels of stress and reactions to trauma. For some, PTSD can be triggered by experiencing, witnessing or being affected by trauma in some way. Others can feel that same trauma because of another person or loved one who has suffered.

Social isolation, fear of disease, the loss of a loved one or financial insecurity stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic are only a few ways people have suffered this year. For some, that stress has created PTSD or has made PTSD symptoms even harder.

Did you know June is PTSD Awareness Month? Read on to learn more about PTSD, the symptoms to look for and ways to cope.

What is PTSD?

The American Psychiatric Association describes PTSD as a “psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”

The condition is not limited to combat veterans, but can affect people of any age, nationality, race or culture. In fact, 3.5 percent of Americans are affected by PTSD, and the APA says an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed in their lifetime with PTSD. Women are also more likely to suffer from PTSD. 

PTSD symptoms can present directly after a trauma, but not always. Sometimes, it takes years to manifest. Symptoms that last for four weeks or longer that could signal PTSD include the following.

  • Reliving the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares.
  • Avoiding situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic experience.
  • Experiencing negative changes in emotions, like hostility, low self-worth, mistrust, memory loss or isolating behaviors.
  • Experiencing hyper-arousal or difficulty sleeping and concentrating. The person could be easily startled or sensitive to loud, unexpected noises or stimuli.

COVID-19 and PTSD

The negative impacts of the pandemic have affected every aspect of life, a study from the American Psychological Association showed. The 2020 study states that “Although large numbers of people throughout the world will show resilience to the profound loss, stress, and fear associated with COVID-19, the virus will likely exacerbate existing mental health disorders and contribute to the onset of new stress-related disorders for many.”

The study also showed gaps in clinical care that could affect immediate response to COVID-19-related PTSD. 

Not every person who goes through trauma or the pandemic will get PTSD, and treatment depends on many different factors, including severity of the condition, symptoms, age and support. Most people with PTSD have a combination of counseling and medicine for treatment.

At INTEGRIS Health, treatment and counseling are available for those who have been diagnosed with PTSD. The first step is identifying the problem and talking with a trusted health care professional about your options so you can decide on a treatment format that works for you.

  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT). This type of therapy helps you cope with negative thoughts linked to the trauma. You’ll work with a therapist to better understand how you think and feel about what happened. And you’ll learn skills to help you cope with the trauma. CPT won’t make you forget about what happened. But it can make the memories easier to live with.
  • Prolonged exposure therapy. This helps you find new ways to deal with thoughts and situations related to the trauma. You’ll learn breathing and relaxation methods to calm yourself when you come into contact with triggers. With your therapist’s help, you may go into situations that remind you of the trauma. You’ll learn to reduce your reactions over time. This can help with avoidance. You’ll also talk about the trauma to help you gain control over how you think and feel about it.
  • Other therapies. Other therapies for PTSD include coping skills training, acceptance and commitment training, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), family counseling, and PTSD psychoeducation.

According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, you can cope with the stress of COVID-19 and additional anxiety stemming from PTSD by taking certain steps. These steps, which go hand-in-hand with therapy and treatment, include the following.

  • Taking steps to feel safe. When you feel safe, you feel less anxious. Following the recommended health measures like social distancing, regularly washing hands for 20 seconds each time, wearing a face mask, avoiding crowds and sanitizing can help you feel more secure and in control.
  • Staying connected to your support system of friends and family will help reduce the feelings of isolation and helplessness.
  • Practicing calming techniques like mediation, yoga and quality sleep could also reduce stressors. 
  • Preparing in advance for situations that trigger stress also helps. For instance, if you are limited in the ability to go to the store to pick up supplies, plan to buy additional items in advance. If you must leave the house, be prepared with safety measures like hand sanitizer and masks.
  • Focusing on small “wins” and keeping a hopeful mindset can help offset feelings of loss, isolation and despair.

When to ask for help

If you think you may be suffering from PTSD or if your PTSD symptoms have worsened due to the pandemic, contact your INTEGRIS health professional today.

The staff at INTEGRIS Decisions Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Programs is available if you need help. Decisions offers treatment for both adults and adolescents. Simply call them at 405-717-9840 and they can help you get the mental health services you need.

You can also find tips on how to stay calm and healthy during COVID-19 on the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog.

Or, if you're looking for resources, the following list may help.

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