COVID-19 has drastically changed all of our lives over the past few months. Some people have gotten sick, some people have died. Many of us have lost friends and loved ones. Some people have had to risk their health every day as they have gone out to perform their essential jobs, while others have lost their jobs and financial security. Many of us have been isolated in our homes, cut off from the every day social interactions that we used to take for granted. It has taken a terrible toll on our mental and emotional well-being. Many people have experienced anxiety and depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a major concern as we move forward.
The American Psychiatric Association defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event… People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended.” The symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing the trauma (including nightmares and flashbacks), emotional numbness or avoidance of anything related to the expereince that caused the trauma, and changes such as difficulty sleeping or concentrating and being easily startled or agitated. These symptoms may be present now and continue as society recovers from the impact of COVID-19, or they may not appear for months or years.
COVID-19 has been an ongoing traumatic event for many people, and some groups of people are more at risk for PTSD than others. Individuals who were severely ill from the coronavirus have experienced a traumatic event, possibly being on the brink of death, and some may be experiencing survivor’s guilt. Healthcare workers and those on the front lines have been through an extended period of physical and emotional strain. Others have experienced tragic losses of loved ones or financial security, or anxiety due to stress of social distancing and media exposure. Each of these experiences can lead to depression and anxiety and has the potential to lead to PTSD. Fortunately, most people do recover without lasting psychological damage, but it is still helpful to be aware of the possibility and to watch for the symptoms for yourself and those around you.
Adults aren’t the only ones whose mental health is affected by COVID-19. Children have been living in a highly stressful environment for months now as well. They have their own fears and anxieties, and some have also experienced loss. Having a low socioeconomic status puts children at higher risk for PTSD, as does living in an area that has been considered a hot spot for the coronavirus. It is important to be aware of how children are coping and provide them with the support that they need. They may have different ways of expressing their depression or anxiety depending on their age. Children may exhibit changes in their behavior, such as unwanted thoughts or nightmares, negative feelings, regressing to outgrown behaviors, difficulty with attention, more physical complaints, and changes in sleep or appetite. It can be difficult to determine the severity of how a child has been impacted, but if you are concerned and the child does not return to their normal after a few weeks, you should consult your child’s pediatrician or a psychologist.
There are actions that you can take in your every day life to help you cope better with the stress of this pandemic and reduce your risk of developing PTSD. You can actively change your thinking with positive thoughts and activities, such as practicing gratitude or mindfulness, which can help take your focus away from the negative and improve your well-being. Be aware of your internal narrative to avoid pessimistic feelings about yourself and deal with your emotions without obsessing over your negative thoughts and feelings. Maintain your connections to others so that you have a support system. And physically take care of yourself with proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise. The US Department of Veteral Affairs has even come up with an app called COVID Coach that can be used to support self-care and mental health.
Parents can use many of these methods to support their children as well, but they may need to talk their children throught he process of mentally coping with their thoughts and emotions. Teenagers and young adults may be experiencing significant frustration and stress from dealing with distance learning and being cut off from friends. Younger children may have trouble understanding what is going on, such as social distancing or losing a grandparent. They should be given the appropriate amount of information for their level of development to help them process the situation and their feelings. But no matter what their age, children need to have their feelings validated and to learn how to deal with them.
For some people, support from loved ones is not enough. PTSD is a serious condition that can have a major impact on someone’s life. It may be necessary to seek professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. If immediate help is needed, you can call the Disaster Distress Hotline or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. There may be more local help available such as the NJ MentalHealthCares Help Line or New York’s Emotional Support Helpline.
We have been living with a sense of fear and helplessness due to COVID-19, and it can be difficult to feel safe even as society begins to relax rules for social distancing. There is talk of the “new normal” because life will not be going back to what it was. It is not going to be an easy transition, so it is important to receive the necessary support to get you through this difficult time.