Trauma

Coronavirus: The Psychological Trauma and PTSD Event

How this pandemic will result in trauma responses.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

Much has been said about the mental health crisis that is occurring related to the coronavirus pandemic. Much of this information has focused on the all-consuming anxiety, panic, and fear that many are experiencing.

While this is important and needs to be at the forefront of discussions, something that has not been discussed is the psychologically traumatic nature of what our nation, and our world, is experiencing. This pandemic is no doubt a psychological trauma crisis waiting to happen.

The Trauma Crisis

Perhaps people, including the media, are hesitant to use the word “trauma” to describe what is going on. This could be because they do not understand what trauma is, they “could never” perceive themselves as having experienced a traumatic event, they do not (understandably) want to further exacerbate fears and anxiety, and in many cases, people don’t necessarily conceptualize that traumas can happen in such a large scale way such as this.

With that in mind, let’s first remind ourselves what trauma is:

“Trauma” is a commonly used word that people often use to convey their emotional experience of a highly stressful and shocking event. While traumatic events are incredibly stressful and shocking, they become “trauma” when a person’s ability to cope is compromised. This often happens in response to events that are perceived as life- or body-threatening, or after witnessing someone else’s life be threatened or taken in a violent or shocking way. 

Psychological trauma often relies on a person’s subjective experience of an event, and to what extent they believe their life, bodily integrity, or psychological well-being was threatened. People who experience trauma may react with intense fear, horror, numbness, or helplessness. Reactions to trauma vary greatly, from a mild reaction with only minimal interruptions in one’s daily life to reactions that are more severe and debilitating.

As a trauma specialist, it is exceedingly clear to me just how traumatic this situation is for nearly every single person in the world.

The Breakdown of Who Is at Risk

The honest short answer? Everyone.

Of course, if you or someone you know has personally been impacted by this virus by acquiring it and becoming symptomatic, the fear of becoming a statistic and losing your life or that of a loved one is very real. If you have experienced anywhere from moderate to severe symptoms, or even mild symptoms with the fear of them advancing to becoming very serious, and possibly deadly, these are the people who will likely come out of this situation experiencing intense post-trauma symptoms.

But let’s not forget our health care workers who are on the front lines of this situation: The people who go into work day in and day out and are faced with making life-or-death decisions about the patients whom they care for. They are also faced with the life-or-death decision of even going to work each day, for fear of exposing themselves to this virus, possibly taking it home with them to their own family—and yet they nonetheless continue to go to work to save lives in abidance of their professional oath they took when they entered into the health care profession.

Many of these health care workers are working long, tireless hours while facing something they have never seen before: something very debilitating, contagious, and deadly. There is no doubt that this entire experience is one that requires an immense amount of support for these individuals, and that many health care workers may come through on the other end of this with intense post-trauma symptoms.

For the general public, including those who never acquire the virus, the overall lifestyle change and the fear that we are managing on a daily basis will lead to a trauma response. Some people will lose their jobs, their livelihoods, and that in and of itself is traumatic. Not only are many facing that possibility, but they are also facing it without knowing when things will return to “normal“ while experiencing the daily fear of contracting this virus.

Does This Mean Many People Will Develop PTSD?

Not necessarily. Not everyone who experiences a trauma, or even the exact same situation, will perceive or respond to it the same. Likewise, not everyone will experience post-trauma symptoms or go on to develop PTSD. But for those do experience post-trauma symptoms, know that it is normal to feel and display the symptoms of PTSD in the first month that follows. That’s what we professionals classify as an acute stress disorder.

And to be frank, a very high percentage of individuals do experience what we consider PTSD symptoms in the period of time immediately after a traumatic event has occurred. Most go on to naturally recover, but some are left with what is really PTSD. In a typical population, 7-8 percent of the population will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives (National Center for PTSD, 2020). However, this figure does not account for the current pandemic situation we are all facing.

What Can Be Done?

Talk about what you are experiencing. Talk about your thoughts and emotions. Processing what you are experiencing, thinking, and feeling seems to be a protective factor for not advancing to PTSD.

What you should not do: avoid. This means do not try to “forget about” or ignore your thoughts and emotions. Do not numb or self-medicate them away. Do not minimize what you are going through.

What If That Isn't Enough?

If that is the case, the answer is working with a trained, experienced, and licensed trauma specialist. Not just your generalist therapist who happens to have also been trained in EMDR. Trauma psychology is a niche, or specialized, area of mental health treatment. You wouldn’t go to a neurologist for a heart problem, right? The same rule applies here.

Fortunately, I have a three-post series about what to look for in a real trauma therapist. Please see my blog homepage to view those articles. And in the meantime, be well, wash your hands, and keep a 6-foot distance from one another!