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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Learning to Live With PTSD and COVID-19

Moving forward in post-pandemic times.

Key points

  • It is possible to learn how to adapt and cope with the pandemic circumstances that initially left us feeling topsy turvy.
  • When bad things happen, our minds find ways to tolerate the intolerable. Feelings of grief and fear hit us after the trauma occurs.
  • As we move ahead, we will learn to integrate our fears and losses. We need to continue living our lives and nurturing ourselves.
Unsplash/ Photo by Jon Tyson
We Got This!
Source: Unsplash/ Photo by Jon Tyson

Do you remember what life was like before the lockdown began almost two years ago? Do you find yourself thinking about how life would have been different if there was no COVID-19? In times of upheaval and trauma, many of us ask ourselves these questions.

Who would have thought that a virus could cause so much uncertainty and loss? When the lockdown started in March 2020, people were scrambling with changes in their work and home lives. At that time, many of us thought, “How will we be able to manage staying home and deal with our lives being disrupted for two weeks?”

If we knew at the beginning of the pandemic that millions of lives would be lost or that our world was about to turn upside down, we might not have survived.

When bad things happen, our minds find ways to tolerate the intolerable. Throughout the years I have met hundreds of patients that survived devastating events, such as, rape, childhood abuse, combat, sudden loss, natural disaster and life-threatening illnesses.

People develop post-traumatic stress disorder when they are unable to digest their feelings or talk to others right after something horrific or tragic has happened. As time goes on many people with PTSD become clinically depressed, anxious and socially avoidant.

During the last couple of years many of us have struggled with similar responses to COVID-19. When the world started to re-open, patients and colleagues told me they were afraid to leave their houses. Others told me they felt more distrusting of people because they could not “see” if the person in their space was healthy or a carrier of COVID-19.

In addition to the fear and anxiety, many have experienced feelings of loss. Some of us lost family members to this dreadful virus.

Others have lost their jobs and their financial security.

Some people have been trapped in physically abusive or emotionally unsafe relationships.

College students have lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity after being locked out of dorms and forced to take classes online.

Our kids have suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety due to social distancing.

Some elder populations have been disconnected from their families, whether they could not hug their grandchildren or visit their partner in a nursing home.

The question many of us are facing as we move into learning how to live with COVID-19 is how do we manage with all of our feelings without developing symptoms of PTSD? This virus is not going anywhere.

On the flip side, it has been just about two years and we need to find ways to move on with our lives. We cannot let the reality of this virus stop us from gathering with loved ones, moving forward in our careers and education and venturing out to more places besides our backyards.

It is possible to learn how to adapt and cope with circumstances that initially left us feeling topsy turvy. For example, I have met several patients who have learned to set boundaries, trust people again, face fears, and get involved in activities that at one time would have triggered PTSD symptoms.

As we move into the process of integrating Covid-19 into our daily living, there are steps we can take to face our grief and fears moving forward.

How to Cope With Grief

  • Acknowledge your loss. Talk about it.
  • Permit yourself to feel your emotions. If you lost someone from the virus or complications resulting from Covid, find ways to honor that person’s memory.

Let yourself feel angry. Talk out loud to that person if that helps. Write a letter to your bereaved or even to Covid.

  • Everyone grieves in their own way. There is no right or wrong way to deal with your loss. If you are mad that you lost almost two years of your college experience, that is okay! It is okay to cry.

It is okay to move on with your life and go after your goals and dreams, and at the same time miss the people who will not be able to witness your accomplishments. When we integrate our emotions leftover from trauma, we can feel happy and sad at the same time.

  • Do self-care when the pain is debilitating. Go for hikes, bike rides, trips to the ocean. Immerse yourself in an entertaining show or book. Call friends and ask them to spend time with you. Wrap your arms around your pets or loved ones and let yourself ride through the sadness.

Do not question your feelings or tell yourself things like, “Get over it.” There is no way we can just “get over” the last two years of what I call the Covid crazy.

  • If the losses or grief from the pandemic are taking over your ability to function, ask for help. Call a therapist. Join a support group. Grab books on healing after trauma.
Unsplash/ Photo by Joshua Reddekopp
Facing Fear
Source: Unsplash/ Photo by Joshua Reddekopp

How to Cope With Fear

It is understandable to be afraid of getting sick or infecting someone else with Covid. For the first several months, most of us were afraid to be in the same room with someone other than the people we live with.

Now we know more about the virus. We have more ways to protect ourselves and others. Facing fear is about stepping into scary situations and reassuring ourselves that we can do to protect ourselves and others.

Keeping up with the science behind Covid 19 will provide some relief and understanding of how and when to draw boundaries. If you feel unsure about something, talk about it. Ask questions.

Trauma of all sorts leaves many of us feeling like we cannot trust our current environment. When someone is trying to form a connection after abuse, he/she needs to know what is and is not acceptable.

In recovery, many of us have learned how to pick up on red flags and also build trust in ourselves that our instincts would not lie to us. It is not that different from the pandemic. It is normal to feel afraid. When we find ourselves having irrational fears, such as, the only way to avoid Covid is to hide in our homes, we need to voice these thoughts and get reality checks.

It is not so black and white. It is possible to develop safe relationships after any abuse. The key is identifying abusive behaviors and permitting ourselves to say no. As we move into living in a world with a virus that could be around for years, we need to give ourselves the freedom to change our minds and make choices that work for us.

If others judge or feel angry about our choices, that is about them. Doing what makes you feel comfortable needs to override concerns about how others will view you.

We do not have control over other peoples’ actions. We do not have control over the variants of Covid 19. We cannot predict or prevent others from making choices that could affect or hurt us. We can control our responses to the information provided. We can assess each situation and decide how to move forward based on the information we have.

Moving Forward Through Life With COVID-19

As time goes by, we will learn how to integrate our fears and losses around COVID-19. We need to continue living our lives and nurture ourselves and our relationships. Stay connected to your hopes and aspirations and find ways to keep moving one step ahead, one step at a time.

Everybody responds differently to trauma, including living the past two years through a pandemic. There is no right or wrong way to respond to events that leave us feeling scared, grief-stricken, or angry. If the fear and grief around your trauma have taken over your ability to function at work or at home, ask for help.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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