COVID and PTSD. Both of these words are in all-caps because they are words that mean more than the one word itself. COVID is our generation’s first and only pandemic that has been so charged that we often find ourselves saying phrases like, “I have PTSD,” or “I am OCD.”
However, it is important to define the words we are using. In narrative therapy, we focus a lot on wording as a way to validate and change our negatives to more positive biographies of our life. My goals for this piece are to define PTSD and provide ways to increase self-care.
My hope is that after you read this, you will be able to help those who are struggling, and validate your own trauma if the terms resonate with you. In the end, I want everyone to know that therapy and self-regulation can have successful and lasting results.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD has several qualifiers. I have condensed the criteria to the most common symptoms related to one’s experience in relation to COVID. Please keep in mind that only a licensed professional can diagnose PTSD and that symptoms must last more than one month and create distress and impairment with your daily activities at work, home, school, etc.:
The person was exposed to: death (watch the virus take hold of a loved one) or threatened by death (having the virus and fearing death). After such an event the person re-experiences the trauma through upsetting memories, nightmares, or flash-backs. A person then avoids trauma-related stimuli such as thoughts or feelings or external reminders (hospitals, masks, etc.). Followed by negative thoughts or feelings for example, the inability to recall key features of the trauma, decreased interest in activities, feelings of isolation, negative affect. All of these symptoms then create alterations in arousal and reactivity such as: irritability or aggression, risky or destructive behavior, hypervigilance, heightened startle reaction, difficulty concentrating, and/or difficulty sleeping.
[Related: Self-care during COVID: Creating your own pandemic slowdown]
PTSD and COVID
In the context of COVID, here are a few ways that PTSD can come about:
- If you witnessed your loved one suffer, panic, or gasp for breath.
- If you have seen you love being taken in an ambulance to the hospital not knowing if they are going to survive.
- If you are a first responder who has been treating COVID patients for several months and inevitably losing patients along the way.
- If you didn’t know if you would make it through after getting COVID.
Medical trauma is being talked about more and more with COVID. PTSD can be caused by birthing trauma, strokes, heart attacks, or any operation/illness in which one is fearing death. It is important to note that feeling afraid to go into crowds is not a symptom of PTSD in and of itself. There is a lot of anxiety that has increased as a result of the virus, but unless you have witnessed or been threatened by death, it is not PTSD.
Once you have identified symptoms of PTSD and been diagnosed, you will be able to start the path of healing. These are real experiences and the way that the body tends to process trauma is to RELIVE it until you can REPROCESS it and allow your body to RELEASE it.
How to start healing
Therapy, therapy, therapy. I am a therapist so you won’t be surprised to hear me say that everyone should try therapy at some point in their life. For individuals with trauma, therapy becomes even more important. Talking it through with someone who is trained in working with trauma will allow you to have a space to share your biggest fears and to release that fear in order to heal and find peace. There are other modalities that we are finding to have awesome results as well, such as: biofeedback, EMDR, and Stellate ganglion block (SGB). Whatever process you choose, I can guarantee you won’t regret it.
[Related: What it's like to be a parent with COVID]
Mercy and grace
Offer this to yourself and others whenever possible. Let yourself off the hook for not doing the dishes, take a self-care day with Netflix, ask for an extension on a work project, go for a long drive to clear your mind. No one can take better care of you than you.
My recommendation for all of my clients right now is to make yourself a care kit. Take a big basket or box and fill it with items that you love and that bring you joy. My box has a cozy blanket, my favorite raspberry herbal tea, lemon and rose oils, fancy hand cream, crochet needles and yarn, embroidery kits, sudoku books, magazines that I haven’t read but have wanted to, snacks, a list of movies I want to watch, etc. What will yours include?
Once you’ve put on your metaphorical oxygen mask, make a box for everyone else in your house. Think of the fun your kids will have on a rainy/snowy/boring day. For couples, this could be a fun activity! In making boxes for each other you will both be truly showing each other you care and giving items that will help increase one another’s mood and joy. Above all, please remember to be safe, check on your strong friends, and ask for help!