PTSD and Pandemic: Can You Get PTSD From a Pandemic?

March 13, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Do you ever have nightmares about the Covid-19 pandemic? Or do intrusive thoughts or memories pop up that make it difficult to function? Have you been having difficulty concentrating in the past few years? If so, you may be dealing with pandemic-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Several years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to understand just how heavy of an impact the pandemic has had on global mental health. Covid-19 brought unimaginable pain and trauma for many people. If you’re still struggling with emotional distress due to the pandemic, you’re not alone.

Here’s what we’ve discovered about Covid-related PTSD and how you can cope if you’re experiencing this.

Does COVID-19 count as trauma?

Trauma is the emotional response humans have to overwhelming or frightening situations. Some of the most common examples of events that cause trauma include:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of a child
  • Physical assault
  • Rape and sexual assault
  • Gun violence and mass shootings
  • Being the victim of or witnessing domestic violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Living in a war zone or going to combat
  • Sudden illness or injury
  • Car accidents

What constitutes a traumatic event isn’t just about the event itself; it’s also very much about how each person interprets it. Some situations – like child abuse – cause a trauma response in almost everyone who experiences them. However, others, like natural disasters, are experienced as traumatic by some people and not by others.

Any event or situation that overwhelms your ability to cope can be considered traumatic. We were all impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways, and the trauma we experienced in response to the pandemic also varied as a result.

For some people, the pandemic may not have been very traumatic. Maybe they (and their loved ones) never got seriously ill. They may not have faced any financial or employment difficulties due to the lockdowns. They weren’t on social media and didn’t get flooded with information about Covid-related deaths.

On the other hand, the pandemic was traumatic for many people. They may have become seriously ill themselves or had loved ones die from COVID-19. They may have suffered significant financial hardships or lost their jobs. They may live with a health condition that causes them to fear for their lives or health.

Both reactions are valid. Covid-19 was very traumatic for many people around the world. Even if some others around you didn’t experience it this way, that doesn’t mean the pandemic “didn’t count” as a traumatic event.

What is the relationship between COVID-19 and PTSD?

Most of the time, the trauma response goes away on its own after a traumatic event. Some people find their levels of post-traumatic stress don’t go away with time and may even get worse. Suppose you’re still experiencing trauma symptoms months after the traumatic event. In that case, you may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Research has shown there is a significant link between the Covid-19 pandemic and PTSD.

In one study, over 30% of people who had Covid-19 were at risk for PTSD at the 3-month follow-up. The most common symptoms reported in this study include difficulty falling asleep, concentrating, and having upsetting memories or thoughts about the pandemic. Nearly 50% of Covid survivors were also more likely to have depression[1].

Another study found the rates of PTSD in children got much higher during the pandemic, regardless of whether the children themselves had COVID-19[2].

Having PTSD does not mean you’re weak. We don’t know precisely why some people developed PTSD after the pandemic and not others, but some groups of people were at higher risk, including children, healthcare workers, and people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

There are so many reasons why this pandemic was so traumatic and led to many people developing PTSD.

Fear of death and illness

Especially before the vaccines became available, many of us lived with a constant fear of illness and death, whether it was fear for our own lives or loved ones. Lack of information and spreading of misinformation contributed to this fear.

Financial uncertainty

Many people lost their jobs during the pandemic, and the resulting financial uncertainty and poverty were very traumatic for many people.

Social isolation

Research shows being in lockdown or quarantine increased the risk of PTSD across different epidemics, and the Covid-19 pandemic was no exception. Reports indicate people living in areas with stricter quarantine regulations were more likely to experience emotional distress[3].

Complex grief

Millions of lives were lost to Covid-19, which resulted in complex grief for many loved ones. Dealing with a loss is always difficult, but Covid-related deaths were additionally traumatic due to their sudden nature. Many people also blamed themselves for possibly transmitting the virus to their loved ones.

Social stigma

Asians and Asian Americans experienced race-related violence due to COVID-19, which added to the trauma of the pandemic for these groups. There was also a social stigma associated with testing positive for Covid, which led many people to hide their Covid status.

Brain impacts of Covid-19

Lastly, it’s recently been found that the COVID-19 infection itself led to long-term brain damage in some infected individuals. The virus can lead to brain inflammation, which can put a person at higher risk for mental health problems like PTSD and depression[4].

Do you have PTSD from Covid-19?

Most of us felt some sort of stress from living through the pandemic. But is what you’re experiencing a sign of PTSD? Answer these questions; if you answer yes, then it could be a sign you have PTSD and should talk to a mental health provider.

  • Do you experience intrusive thoughts or images about the pandemic that are so intense it feels like you’re re-experiencing the height of the pandemic?
  • Are you jumpy or easily startled? Do you get easily frightened at things like someone getting too close to you?
  • Do you avoid places or people that remind you of what you lived through during the pandemic (for example, avoiding driving by the hospital where you stayed)?
  • Do you have nightmares about Covid-19?
  • Do you need help with concentrating or making important decisions?
  • Do you feel detached from your life, like a robot going through the motions?
  • Have you withdrawn from your family and friends?
  • Are these symptoms making functioning at work or in your relationships difficult?

This questionnaire is not meant to provide a diagnosis of PTSD. However, if these questions resonate with you, seeing a therapist or telling your physician about what you’re experiencing may be beneficial.

How to cope with pandemic-related trauma

Although COVID-19 has transitioned from a pandemic to an endemic, the feelings of stress and trauma have not gone away for many of us. If you’re struggling with pandemic-related post-traumatic stress, here are some ways to cope.

Live your life

When dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic, it may be tempting to isolate yourself at home, forgoing all of the activities you used to enjoy. Locking yourself away allows you to avoid PTSD triggers and feel safe. However, avoidance only leads PTSD symptoms to get worse in the long run.

Try to challenge yourself to live your life. Reengage in the activities you love. Leave your house and find safe ways to socialize.

Connect with others

Talking to others about how you’re feeling may yield surprising results: You may come to realize other people feel the same way. Sharing your emotions with others can help you feel less alone, and social support is critical during any difficult time.

Connect with loved ones. Don’t isolate yourself. Reach out when you need support.

Validate yourself

Learn more about Covid-related PTSD to understand what you’re going through. Put names on your emotions and experiences. Learning can help you know you’re not alone – and what you’ve experienced is a valid and human reaction to the heavy burden of the past few years.

Seek support

Lastly, although trauma can heal over time, symptoms of PTSD are unlikely to go away on their own. If you live with PTSD, then you may need professional mental health support to help you get through it. There are practical and evidence-based treatment methods that can help you process these traumatic experiences and find ways to move forward.

The Center • A Place of HOPE uses a unique Whole Person Care approach to mental health treatment. This means we consider every aspect of your well-being – mental, physical, spiritual, social, and financial. We understand that your societal environment and mental health are deeply interlinked.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted your mental health, we want to help you. Give us a call for more information on admissions, insurance, and finances.

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Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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