Living With PTSD During COVID-19
An interview on trauma and the pandemic.
Posted Sep 23, 2020
Those living with preexisting mental health conditions have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic as an additional stressor that can be overwhelming.
Kavitha Venkateswaran, Ph.D., is a licensed Counseling Psychologist who has trained in several areas of integrated care and health psychology. She currently works in primary care-mental health integration (PC-MHI) and outpatient mental health at the Clement J. Zablocki VAMC in Milwaukee, specializing in women’s mental health. She deeply values the practice of psychology from a multicultural and social justice lens and attempts to infuse these values into her clinical and service activities.
Claire Hauser, Ph.D. trained in Counseling Psychology and is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Illinois. She practices in Champaign, IL with Graceway Psychology Group.
Jamie Aten: How would you personally define post-traumatic stress disorder?
Claire Hauser: Post-traumatic stress disorder is a change in the ways our minds and bodies react to everyday life when we have not yet healed from some kind of traumatic experience. Although the trauma has passed, we are living as though it is present or just around the corner. With PTSD specifically, we are talking about traumatic experiences that would have made a person feel at risk of losing their life, being seriously harmed, or witnessing this secondhand for another person.
When defining trauma during times of COVID-19, we also think it’s important to acknowledge that there are other stressful experiences that don’t exactly fit with the definition of PTSD. For example, chronic stress from racism, poverty, unhealthy relationships, or consistently bad experiences from earlier in life are significant stressors that also impact the ways in which people process the many unknowns of this era. Many types of experiences can overwhelm our coping resources, and we think there is a spectrum of trauma reactions that are all valid and important to acknowledge. The key thing to remember is that this is not a life sentence; as creatures, we are designed to heal, so long as we have the right conditions and supports.
JA: What are some ways understanding PTSD's impact during COVID-19 can help us live more resiliently?
CH: We will grow more resilient from the collective trauma of this pandemic if we develop stronger connections in our personal relationships and at the larger societal level. I think we need to recognize that many of the systems that represent individualist values have made our citizens vulnerable for a long time, and this has only been exaggerated by COVID-19.
The limits of our healthcare system, racial injustice, and economic inequality are a few of the major issues we see heightened by the pandemic. Collectively we will become more resilient if we orient toward our communities and work to create a system that can bolster us against future disasters.
In our individual lives, I believe this time has made folks aware of the value of having strong connections and the ways in which it is easy to neglect cultivating relationships in “normal” times. I hope we become more resilient through a collective re-evaluation of values and priorities.
JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience amidst this pandemic?
Kavitha Venkateswaran: Resilience can be cultivated at multiple levels, including individual, family, and community levels. At an individual level, resilience can be cultivated by establishing a sense of normal and routine during the pandemic. I typically talk to my clients about the usual ways in which they seek support and find joy during “normal times” and then discuss how these avenues can be adapted so that they are still present during the pandemic. We also recommend finding personal limits for news and media consumption in order to curb constant exposure to distressing events.
The pandemic has shifted dynamics within many families given increased interaction with each other and decreased interaction with those outside the family unit. At times, family members are left feeling stressed, exhausted, and irritable with one another. We suggest setting explicit boundaries within families to cultivate resilience so that there is distinct time and space for work, individual time, and family time.
At a community level, we are witnessing multiple public health crises unfolding at once, given the compounding effects of both the pandemic and issues of racial injustice. Resilience can be fostered by examining one’s values and engaging in meaningful collective action that aligns with those values. Since this pandemic is further exposing the pervasive societal inequities that have long existed, resilience at a community level will certainly involve working toward equity and social justice.
JA: Any advice for how we might use what you have learned to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?
KV: Supporting a loved one or friend during a difficult life situation, especially in the context of this pandemic, can feel challenging due to the current physical distancing guidelines and safety precautions. The first thing we would recommend is openly asking the person what they might need or want during this difficult time. Oftentimes, we envision what we might need or want in a similar situation, and then assume the other person would also benefit from these same supports. However, each person is different, and exploring how best to support your loved one might alleviate some of the unknowns.
The second thing we would recommend is being present, whether that is in-person (if the person is within your immediate family or within your pod) or virtually. The mere act of letting the person know you are here to support them and allowing them to feel heard or validated can be a powerful tool for both support and healing.
Finally, we would recommend checking in with yourself and being attuned to your own limits or boundaries. Sometimes, we can put aside our own needs to help those we love, but this is ultimately not sustainable. If you find yourself feeling burnt out or resentful toward the other person, it might be time to prioritize your own needs or self-care before continuing to help your loved one.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
KV: Within my role as a psychologist at the Milwaukee VAMC, I am continuously trying to increase access to mental health services for veterans during this pandemic. I work with women veterans, and as research is showing, women, especially women of color, are disproportionately impacted by the effects of this pandemic.
I am providing options for both phone and video teletherapy, as well as increasing access to group therapy options via video and call-in options. We recently started a drop-in virtual wellness group to help veterans better cope with pandemic-related stressors. I am also going to be starting a virtual group to help veterans of color address the impact of race-based stress and trauma.
From a personal perspective, I think I am continuously aiming to find a new work-life balance during this pandemic. Holding space for others and working on integrated teams, while also managing my own stressors and being present for my family, is an evolving process that includes a supportive network of colleagues and loved ones as well as an ongoing reflection as a therapist and health care team member.
CH: Like many others, my focus during the pandemic has shifted toward balancing the demands of my home and family life with my professional work. I am taking leave from my practice to focus on home life for the immediate future. When I return, my aim is to train in somatic experiencing therapy and build mind-body integration into my practice to a greater degree.
Venkateswaran, K. D., & Hauser, C. T. (2020). Living with PTSD amid a global pandemic. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S71-S72. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000857