COVID-19 is affecting everyone. It has become a health crisis that threatens our physical and psychological well-being. Even if we’re lucky enough to steer clear of the disease, we’re nonetheless socially distanced, our work may have dried up or completely changed, businesses around us are closing, and our children are e-learning and missing out on the social and emotional aspects of school. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring or when the pandemic will finally be over. We are collectively living through a time we’ve never experienced before. Many experts are worried that all of this upheaval and trauma will result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Should we be concerned and what can be done?
Does COVID-19 Exacerbate Existing Mental Health Disorders?
The negative impacts of the pandemic have affected every aspect of life, according to a study from the American Psychological Association. The study from 2020 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.” Most people would think, “How can someone get PTSD from COVID-19 and this pandemic? It’s not that traumatizing.” Let’s take a look at PTSD, first, to get a sense of how it relates!
What is PTSD?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD “is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.” It can develop from a single, isolated event – being the victim of a physical assault, for example – or from more chronic, recurrent traumatic experiences. Most of us can and do recover from trauma, but some of us will develop PTSD. The disorder is characterized by sleeping difficulties – trouble sleeping or hypervigilance; nightmares and flashbacks; avoiding situations or even people that remind the person of the trauma; intrusive feelings of guilt, anger or shame; or loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable. When these symptoms last for more than a month and impede normal functioning, it can be classified as PTSD.
PTSD symptoms typically start within one month of a traumatic event; however, they can occur years later. We are more likely to develop the disorder if we have experienced previous trauma exposures (therapists call these ‘lifetime trauma load’) or have a history of childhood traumas and adverse childhood events (ACEs) – particularly those involving perpetrated interpersonal violence. Medical events and procedures with potential threats to life are also associated with higher rates of PTSD development, even if these medical interventions are successful; this includes those who develop COVID-19 and are subject to prolonged treatment in intensive care units as a result.
According to a September article in the Wall Street Journal, some studies are finding elevated rates of PTSD among health care workers and young people. The journal Psychological Trauma surveyed health care workers in Greece and found that almost 17% met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, as did about 32% of young adults.
When untreated, PTSD can last for decades; those afflicted cannot just “snap out of it” or get over it without interventions. In fact, PTSD can grow worse over time, leading to substantial distress, disrupting “normal” functioning and causing major issues in relationships, at work, and at home.
Recommended Video: Understanding PTSD’s Effects on Brain, Body, and Emotions | Janet Seahorn | TEDxCSU
PTSD disrupts the lives of average individuals as well as combat veterans who have served their country. The person experiencing the trauma often then impacts the lives of his/her family, friends, and workplaces. PTSD does not distinguish between race, age or gender and often goes undiagnosed. Even with proper diagnosis, many individuals do not know where to turn to get help. Society needs to understand the aftermath of trauma especially combat trauma and how to prepare for warriors when they return home.
Janet Seahorn, Ph.D has been a teacher, administrator, and consultant for over thirty years. She currently teaches a variety of classes on neuroscience and literacy as an adjunct professor for Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. Jan has a Ph.D in Human Development and Organizational Systems. Her background includes an in-depth understanding of human development and neuroscience research as well as effective practices in organizational systems and change. She conducts workshops on the neuroscience of learning and memory, the effects of “at-risk” environments (i.e., poverty), brain development, and researched-based instructional practices. Jan has worked with many organizations in the business and educational communities in creating and sustaining healthy, dynamic environments. Dr. Seahorn has researched and studied the effects of trauma on the brain and how excessive or extreme trauma can impact changes in the brain’s neuro network and how that change impacts behaviors in s
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx
The first step in treating PTSD involves identifying the problem and then seeking out a trained health care professional to learn about your options and identify a treatment plan customized to you and your symptoms. A number of psychological treatments and therapies can be effective at treating PTSD symptoms. These include:
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprogramming (EMDR).
- More than 30 positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR therapy. Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions. Another study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions. [emdr.com]
- Prolonged exposure therapy to help when entering into situations that are reminiscent of the trauma.
- Support groups and other forms of talk therapy.
- Ketamine Treatment for PTSD
- Following treatment, inpatient hospital days were reduced by 70%, and hospital admissions were reduced by 65%. The dose of ketamine patients required was stable over time with no evidence of tolerance building. There were no serious adverse events and no long-term negative effects associated with ketamine. [Hartberg, J., Garrett-Walcott, S. & De Gioannis, A. Impact of oral ketamine augmentation on hospital admissions in treatment-resistant depression and PTSD: a retrospective study. Psychopharmacology 235, 393–398 (2018)]
- Medication – Medication is also used to treat PTSD, but at NAMI CCNS, we cannot prescribe medication; a prescribing clinician would need to be consulted for more information on types of medication that are used to treat PTSD.
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
- TMS uses high-powered magnets to stimulate neurons in the brain; carefully controlled doses of ketamine can also help alleviate PTSD. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country, skilled therapists and psychiatrists who can deliver those treatments are in short supply.
Many clinicians recommend a combination of therapies for most effective treatment of PTSD.
With the rise of fear, isolation and death, PTSD has come into focus as another impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we will get through this! If you know of any good resources to combat PTSD, please leave them in the comments below!
How We Can Help
At NAMI CCNS, our support groups and educational programs are all available through remote participation and attendance during the pandemic, and our programs are free for all participants. Please learn more at www.namiccns.org. We also feature a host of resources and related services that may be able to help.