COVID-19 and PTSD: Mental Health Outcomes at the Dawn of the New Normal

Cases of COVID-related PTSD are expected to rise as we journey closer to herd immunity. Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash.

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash.

It’s Not Over Yet

With a return to normalcy pending, people are itching to mark the pandemic’s end date on their calendars.  The Gallup, armed with data from the CDC and Johns Hopkins University, has estimated that herd immunity could be achieved as early as June.  However, eliminating a plague and eliminating its effects are two different things.  There are myriad studies and statistics available all across the web regarding the decline of mental health outcomes in the United States as the pandemic has persisted, some of which posit that increased cases of trauma-related disorders are on the horizon, including PTSD.

What We Know

According to Dr. Laura K. Murray— scientist and clinical psychologist at John’s Hopkins University— there has been a significant increase in anxiety, depression, fatigue, relationship problems, domestic violence, substance use and abuse, and suicidal thoughts in the public sphere since the onset of COVID-19.  “We know that over half of us are dealing with some pretty significant problems given the pandemic over the past year,” she told CBS News.  “…We’ve certainly seen the pain and suffering from all sides.”

To take it one step further, Dr. Rachna Raisinghani, psychiatrist and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, claimed that the nation will need to recover from “different levels of trauma during the pandemic” that have contributed to “post-traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD.  “Some symptoms of PTSD may include flashbacks, nightmares, trying to block certain memories, or being easily startled or irritated.”  After experiencing over a year of financial insecurity, high unemployment rates, mass evictions, severe political strain, and rapidly climbing COVID-19 case numbers and death rates, to name a few, it’s not a stretch to imagine that many of us will have to work through some form of PTSD in order to truly move forward.

What’s Expected

While it’s true that everyone has had different experiences over the past year, if the general population is suffering from widespread mental health decline, potentially PTSD, it’s clear that those outcomes will not improve at needle poke.  In fact, studies show that returning to normal from a mental health perspective could take years.

“This mental health problem is going to continue,” said Dr. Patrice Harris to CNBC, psychiatrist and former president of the American Medical Association.  And to further complicate the issue, the mental health field was “severely underfunded” prior to COVID-19.  “We didn’t have equitable access to mental health resources, so we are going to have to double-down and triple-down.”

As time goes on and the discourse surrounding mental health and COVID-19 continues, there are chances that the infrastructure of psychological treatment will continue to see changes.  More options pertaining to accessibility, including a broadening of resources available via Telehealth, will emerge to address the projected influx of people who need help processing their traumas.

Recovery Helps

In the wake of the pandemic, it’s important that every single one of us take responsibility for our depression, anxiety, PTSD, etcetera.  We have all been affected, and so it’s up to us to ensure that we have as smooth a transition as possible into a post-COVID world.

  • Try to keep active.  Even light activity is important to maintaining a healthy mind and body.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend 150-300 minutes of physical activity a week.  It also may be useful to know that your exercise can happen in short bursts throughout the day and needn’t be limited to a workout routine— non-traditional movement is sometimes what the body needs most, so turn on your music and give yourself the prompt to simply move how you want to, how it feels good, or how feels the most natural.
  • Get enough sleep.  Adults need anywhere between 6-10 hours of sleep a night.  Try experimenting with sleep times and lengths to figure out the amount of sleep you need to function and feel your best.  If your circumstances make it impossible to sleep for long periods of time, such as having back-to-back work shifts, making room in your schedule for micro-naps should be a priority.  A tired body is an impaired body.
  • Become aware of your thoughts and feelings.  How long has it been since you checked in and asked yourself what you’re really feeling?  Chances are, you’ve had to bury a few things in order to push through the monumental stress of 2020 and the start of 2021.  Take a deep breath and listen to yourself.  Write your heart out.  Meditate.  Practice mindfulness.  Deliberately get a feel for how you feel.  This will help you determine whether or not you need extra help, or if you’re coping effectively for the time being.
  • Limit media.  News isn’t a need.  You do not have to know what is happening 24/7, either on your social media feeds or on the world stage.  Try putting distance between yourself and technology and see if you notice a difference in your stress levels.
  • Identify your coping mechanisms.  What is your go-to when you need quick comfort?  Your wallet?  Your phone?  Your fridge?  Your friends?  It’s important to acknowledge how you relieve stress to determine whether or not you’re doing so in a healthy manner.  Things like emotional eating, mindless scrolling, online shopping, and inane conversations can give you a quick boost when you’re in need of extra serotonin but are famously ineffective for addressing and abating stress at the core.
  • Reach out to others.  If you are in distress and think you might need to talk things through with someone, either with a friend, family member, or professional, now is the time to be an advocate for yourself.  A pandemic is NOT the time to grin and bear it and pretend that everything is okay.  Additionally, when you do the brave thing and reach out for help, you make it safe for others to reach out too.  Above all, remember that you are not alone and that there are people out there that want to help.

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We hope that this information on COVID PTSD is useful to you.

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