Updated: Jul 7
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental disorder that can occur for people who have experienced a traumatic event. Many people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their life, but not everyone will develop PTSD as a result, occurring in about 7 to 8% of that population.
Traumatic events include combat-related events, physical or emotional abuse and exposure to a violent crime or a natural disaster, among other things. “Following a traumatic event, most people will experience a stress reaction, feeling anxious, worried, fearful or depressed,” says Brian Carpenter, PhD, Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and board member of the Palliative Care Network. “For most, those reactions will ease over time, usually over a matter of weeks. But for a small percentage of people, those reactions don’t go away or go away and come back later, resulting in the disorder form of the stress reaction — PTSD.”
That prolonged and more complicated stress reaction can affect people’s mental and physical health, social functioning and ability to do tasks at home, school or work.
While most people who experience trauma will not develop PTSD, it’s important to note that it is not the result of a personal failing or weakness that those who do develop it should feel ashamed or guilty about. Often, it is some complication in their exposure, such as an underlying vulnerability or circumstance, that made it more challenging for them to recover from their trauma.
Almost everyone is feeling a degree of stress because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are some people who may experience a traumatic event that could lead to PTSD. This is particularly true for caregivers or health care professionals who may be working long hours under physical and emotional stress and who may see someone suddenly become very sick or die in very difficult circumstances.
These times of insecurity and uncertainty may also trigger PTSD in those who have already developed it. “There is a worldwide loss of safety and security,” says Sara Swinson, chaplain at the Visiting Nurse Association. “This may exacerbate the fears of those with PTSD, whether it be emotional, physical or relational.”
Even if you do not have PTSD or have not experienced a particularly traumatic event, the stressors during this time can be challenging — ranging from caregivers fears or worries for their older loved ones or guilt as a result of social distancing restrictions to financial stress or ongoing hypervigilance.
Assess Your Emotions
It’s important to assess where you fall along the continuum of stress to know if a greater issue is occuring. “Everyone should take their own emotional temperature,” says Dr. Carpenter. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I feeling unusually worried or overwhelmed by my emotions? Do I feel unusually irritable, restless or on edge? Am I having more difficulty concentrating or sleeping?’ Those can all be signs that a person is experiencing a stress reaction.”
Implement Coping Strategies
To help manage your stress and anxiety during this time, there are some adaptive coping strategies you can employ. These include: staying socially connected, maintaining routine, making time for yourself, limiting news to only trusted sources and staying present. “Whatever you’re feeling, try to offer yourself compassion and speak to yourself in a loving way,” says Sara. “Imagine if a little child came to you saying, ‘I’m scared,’ or ‘I’m worried.’ You would first ask why and then respond with comforting or soothing words. We should offer ourselves this same compassion.”
Find Additional Support
Lastly, if you feel like your stress is beyond your ability to manage it alone or it has begun to interfere with your ability to accomplish everyday tasks, consider seeking out the assistance of a mental health provider.
Some resources for additional support include the: