COVID-19 and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
By: Dr. Kristyn Gregory, DO, medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, affects 8 million Americans in any given year. It’s commonly associated with war veterans but can occur in anyone exposed to severe trauma.
Behavioral health experts predict COVID-19 will have a similar effect on the mental health of medical workers and recovering patients. These individuals have an increased risk of anxiety and depression, as well as PTSD.
Causes of PTSD
As the pandemic strains hospitals and the health care system, employees are struggling to adapt. Shouldering mental burdens at home and work can lead to increased stress, and in some cases, paranoia.
Common PTSD triggers include:
- A natural disaster
- A serious accident
- A violent personal assault
- Rape or other sexual assault
- War or combat situations
Individuals with secondhand exposure can also develop PTSD. For example, learning about the violent death of a loved one or being repeatedly exposed to traumatic behaviors (i.e. police work).
Symptoms of PTSD
To receive a PTSD diagnosis, symptoms must persist for at least one month. In severe cases, they can last for years. Symptoms are divided into the following four categories:
- Avoiding Reminders: Individuals may actively avoid triggers that remind them of their trauma. This includes specific people, places, activities, objects, or situations.
- Intrusive Thoughts: These may include flashbacks, distressing dreams, and involuntary memories of trauma. At times, memories may be so strong, the person can feel like they’re reliving the event.
- Negative Thoughts and Feelings: Feeling detached or negatively about yourself or others are both symptoms of PTSD. One may also experience recurring fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame as well as a loss of interest in their favorite activities.
- Reactive Symptoms: People with PTSD may be more prone to angry outbursts or irritable behavior. They may engage in reckless or self-destructive activities and have difficulty concentrating or sleeping.
Treatments for PTSD
Individuals struggling with PTSD or any type of psychological distress should contact a mental health professional who may implement one of the following treatments:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy: Patients work with therapists to modify their negative emotions and beliefs that come from trauma, like overcoming feelings of guilt or failure.
- Group Therapy: Survivors of similar traumatic experiences share their stories and reactions in a safe space.
- Medication: Medication is prescribed to help patients control certain emotions so they can move forward with psychotherapy. It may also help them to overcome symptoms like nightmares, irregular sleep patterns, and anxiety.
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy: Patients repeatedly go through memories of their trauma or are exposed to triggers in a controlled, progressive way. This is intended to help them cope and better manage their emotions.
Dr. Kristyn Gregory, DO, is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health tips, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.