The past few years have been incredibly stressful for all of us. From worries about health and safety, to dealing with the death or illness of friends and family, navigating financial hardships due to job loss, or having to constantly adjust for school closures and disruptions in childcare, life has been a nonstop rollercoaster of stress and worry. As a result, some people may even be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on from all of the stressors.
“Normally, with trauma, there’s something that’s coming at you, that puts your body into fight, flight, or freeze mode, but with COVID, it’s an invisible threat,” said Stephanie Stathas, a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks, who specializes in treating trauma. In the past few years, Stathas has seen a major uptick in people seeking treatment, many of whom are dealing with symptoms related to trauma, such as anxiety, depression, irritability, and sleep disturbances.
Non-stop stress can cause PTSD symptoms
PTSD tends to develop in the weeks after a traumatic event, although sometimes it can show up months or years later. Symptoms include hyper-vigilance, emotional avoidance or numbing, flashbacks, nightmares, irritability, anxiety, depression, and can also include physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, or stomachaches.
Although we typically think of PTSD as developing after a specific traumatic event, such as surviving a car crash or violent assault, people can also develop the condition after repeated exposure to stressful or traumatic events. If the traumatic events were on-going, with no chance for escape, this can lead to what is known as complex PTSD, which has similar symptoms to PTSD but can also include feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness; a decreased ability to regulate emotions; and issues with forming and maintaining healthy relationships. “It doesn’t become just one single incident anymore, now you have all these incidents, and all of those combined make it complex PTSD,” Stathas said.
Complex PTSD often develops in people who grew up in abusive environments, were in an abusive relationship as an adult, or went through another similar, extended period of stress that they were unable to escape. Given the pervasive nature of the pandemic, the symptoms people are struggling with are often a result of non-stop stress.
However, as experts are starting to point out, the pandemic is a unique stressor that will have its own pattern of trauma-related symptoms. Some experts have already coined the term COVID Stress Syndrome, which includes fear about becoming infected, fear about the financial impact of the pandemic; fear of others who may be infected; compulsive checking and reassurance-seeking; and other stress symptoms related to the pandemic.
As Stathas points out, it’s the uncertainty and unpredictability of the past few years that has been incredibly stressful. “All of those changes, all of the time, that just goes into those feelings of helplessness and powerlessness against something, and that’s difficult,” Stathas said. “Just having a sense of control of something can help us make feel better, but going over two years without that, it’s scary.”
What to do if you are experiencing PTSD
If the stressors of the past few years have reached a point where it is having a negative impact in your personal relationships, on your physical health and well-being, or on your overall emotional state, it’s important to seek help sooner rather than later.
“Whenever it catches up to you, and you don’t know why, look at what you haven’t addressed, what isn’t resolved,” Stathas said. “It’s going to catch up. I see that all the time.”
Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to seek out someone who is trained in treating trauma, as there are a number of different treatment options. Some of the more common types of therapy for PTSD include cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive processing therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
Depending on your preferences, one type may work better than another. Many therapists will be trained in multiple types and may adapt strategies from each one to suit your needs. “There’s no shame in doing therapy,” Stathas said. “It’s no different from going to a doctor to take care of your medical well-being. Mental health and well-being is equally important.”