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A Pandemic Surprise: PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is most generally associated with people who experience war, physical assault, or horrific natural disasters (tsunamis, tornados, floods, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, etc.). But mental health experts are now predicting that the current COVID-19 pandemic may also cause PTSD.

 

What Exactly is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health disorder that results from a traumatic event in which a person believes his life or safety are threatened, whether the threat is real or not.

PTSD is generally characterized by four major symptoms:

  • A person may have nightmares or experience flashbacks, where it seems that the traumatic event is happening all over again.
  • A person may avoid situations that remind her of the traumatic event.
  • A person may experience negative changes in mood or beliefs about themself or the world (“I am bad,” “The whole world is totally dangerous,” “Everyone is untrustworthy”). Other negative emotional results may be anxiety, fear, lack of control, panic, and fear of death.
  • A person may experience “hyper-arousal,” in which normal sights or sounds, such as the backfiring of a car, may result in an otherwise abnormal response (running to safety or diving for cover).

If any of these symptoms lasts for more than four weeks, a healthcare professional may diagnose the person with PTSD.

So, bearing in mind the above diagnostic criteria, how might COVID-19 contribute to PTSD?

 

The Pandemic and PTSD

As a child twenty years ago, T. emigrated with her parents from a war-torn country to seek a better life in Canada. She has bad memories of her former life, when food was scarce, and she and her family were fearful and often went hungry. Life in Canada has provided her with bountiful resources and she has never experienced hunger again.

One day soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began, T. went to the grocery store. She was shocked to find empty shelves that just a week before had been filled with food. She was immediately overcome by feelings of panic and despair—feelings she had not experienced since moving to Canada. That night she had nightmares about never-ending hunger and danger.

Even though the situation was completely different, T. was re-experiencing the trauma of her childhood, caused by the sight of the empty shelves.

 

H. was a nurse at a hospital in a large metropolitan area. So far, his career had consisted of what he called “happy nursing”—working in reconstructive surgery where the patients were generally delighted with the outcome of their operations. When the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated all medical hands on deck, H. volunteered to assist. Suddenly, he was surrounded by scores of patients dying every day—and he was helpless to prevent it. Moreover, these patients’ families were not allowed anywhere near them. Many people died alone, while their terrified and grieving families stood apart helplessly.

Not only did H. feel overwhelming compassion and sadness, he began to be terrified that he would contract the coronavirus and end up in the same situation as these dying patients. As the pandemic dragged on with no end in sight, fear overpowered him to the point that he could no longer perform his job. He was relieved of his duties, but flashbacks and nightmares continued to haunt him. He was especially triggered when watching news stories about the pandemic that seemed to dog him at every turn.

 

Who Is At Risk?

You don’t have to be an immigrant from a destitute country or a frontline healthcare worker to develop PTSD from the pandemic.

Those most at risk of PTSD include:

  • People who have a lost a loved one to COVID-19. Not being at the bedside of a loved one who is dying of the coronavirus is incredibly difficult. And not being able to hold a funeral adds to the pain. All the things that a society normally does to assist in the bereavement process are no longer available due to social distancing.
  • Survivors of the coronavirus. Research shows that there is a lot of PTSD among survivors who have been in the intensive care unit—particularly those who were place on ventilators. Many former ICU patients remember fearing that they were going to die and were at a loss to help themselves.
  • People who are affected economically. Unemployment is at historic highs. During such times, when there is no relief in sight, family and partner violence tends to increase. Witnessing or being a victim of such violence can lead to PTSD. Suicide rates are also increasing, causing PTSD symptoms in the survivors.
  • Mental health experts say that anyone who has a history of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety is at greater risk of developing PTSD caused by the pandemic.

 

Protecting Against PTSD

PTSD resulting from the current pandemic is not inevitable, but the past offers a warning. After the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, studies in Hong Kong showed that 40% of survivors had symptoms of PTSD. And Dr. Rima Styra, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto, says, “We’re going to have many more mental health issues as time goes on, and people will refer to it as a mental health pandemic.”

But PTSD resulting from any kind of trauma isn’t necessarily a life-long sentence. And there are ways to minimize the risks of developing PTSD in the first place. Taking care of your mental health now is the best prevention and coping mechanism.

 

Practice Self-Care

Accept the situation for what it is.

The pandemic is temporary. Vaccines will be developed, and the virus will be controlled.

Be flexible in the way you think. Social distancing won’t last forever. Weddings, graduation ceremonies, and funerals will be held again. We will be able to gather once again for family dinners and worship services. Stores will once again be filled with shoppers. Airline travel and cruises will resume. Hotels, restaurants, and theatres will reopen. Yes, protective measures may be in place in the “new normal,” but everyday life will not be as restrictive as it currently is.

 

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Get enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition to keep your immune system in top-notch condition. Make sure you have some down time to do what relaxes you, whether it’s meditation, reading a good book, taking a walk, listening to music, or cooking a delicious meal. It’s even all right to escape for a while by binge watching the latest streaming series everyone’s raving about.

Limit news consumption

Constantly viewing the devastation caused by the pandemic, or reminding yourself how many more people have died, can be traumatic. (And don’t forget—many more people have survived the pandemic than have died!) Sometimes it’s hard to drag yourself away from the news but do it anyway and distract yourself with pleasant activities.

There are even some positive news stories out there. A quick Internet search just now produced over 4 billion results!

Reach out for help if you feel yourself floundering

Choosing to white-knuckle it through life is not a sign of strength, nor is seeking counseling or therapy a sign of weakness. Indeed, the strongest among us are those who recognize that they can’t do it alone, that they need others to help them.

Mental health experts can employ a variety of treatment options to alleviate and eliminate symptoms of PTSD.  Neurofeedback therapy has shown to be an outstanding and effective tool in relieving symptoms related to PTSD and anxiety.  By recruiting the brain’s own mechanisms of neuroplasticity, neurofeedback can help stabilize your emotions, restore your sleep cycles, and provide relief from stress.

Please don’t hesitate to get professional help. There is no need to live with this debilitating condition.

 

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How To Survive “Pandemic Fear”

We’ve all heard the old saying, “There are no guarantees in life.” The uncertainty of “no guarantees” can evoke great fear, especially when the uncertainty involves something as sinister and previously unknown as the current COVID-19 pandemic. We are living through a time that can challenge your mental health.

 

What is Fear?

Fear is a natural reaction to what you think is dangerous. It doesn’t matter if the danger is real or not. We humans are programmed with several basic needs—one of which is the need to be safe. If we feel unsafe, our bodies naturally go into “fight or flight” mode, and our instinct for safety takes over the part of our brains that would normally tell us to stop, think, and make a rational, reasonable decision about what to do.

 

Fear is Contagious

Picture this: You are sitting quietly on a park bench, soaking up the warm spring sunshine. Birds are singing, flowers are blooming; Everything around you is quiet and peaceful.

Suddenly you hear footsteps charging toward you and a person screaming, “Run! Hurry! They’re after us!” In an instant, your sense of peace is replaced by an overwhelming sense of fear. You have no idea what this person is talking about, but the frantic look on his face tells you that something horribly threatening is coming your way. So you start running too, even though you have no idea what you’re running from.

It’s only later that you find out that the person, who has an irrational fear of balloons, thought he was being “chased” by a bunch of helium balloons that accidentally got loose from a balloon cart on the other end of the park. Nevertheless, your feeling of fear was triggered by his obvious fear.

Now let’s relate that to the pandemic.

 

What You Can’t Control

We are bombarded by coronavirus news. For several months now—day after day, week after week—it’s been the top story on every news outlet. And the stories are accompanied by huge graphics in bright, glaring red. How many people have died worldwide; How many people have died in your country; The millions that are yet expected to perish. You see videos of refrigerator trucks, lots of them, lined up behind a hospital, ready to receive bodies of coronavirus victims, because the mortuaries are overflowing and can no longer accommodate all the dead. And the news outlets play these videos over and over and over…

To add to our fear, this “enemy” is invisible. Were it a bunch of balloons, you could easily see the enemy and quickly ascertain that they aren’t a threat. But this microscopic virus is everywhere—or so you are led to believe. It lives in our breath; it lives on surfaces; it can infect us through our eyes, of all things!

And to top it all off—no one knows how to stop it.

No wonder you are consumed with fear!

 

What You Can Control

Even though you have no control over the pandemic, you are 100% in control of how you react to it! This is where you can slow down, think rationally, and make good decisions about what to do.

In order to make good decisions, it’s necessary that you calm yourself. Try this mindfulness exercise. Find a place where you won’t be distracted. Then take a few deep, slow breaths. Focus all your attention on the here and now. Concentrate on your surroundings. What do you see, hear, or smell?

Think pleasant thoughts. In your mind, imagine a beautiful, peaceful place where you would like to be. What does it look like? How do you feel when you are there? Stay there, in your mind, and lose yourself if the peace and beauty.

Do these mindfulness exercises as often as you feel the need to calm your body and your mind.

 

But What If…

In fear mode, it’s easy to spiral downward into the depths of “what ifs.” And unfortunately, some people—we call them fear-mongers—love to fuel the fire of worst-case scenarios. For example, if a woman announces that she is pregnant with her first baby, people start telling her horror stories of morning sickness, of life-threatening complications, of unbelievably painful labor and delivery. The poor woman is terrified. She starts thinking, “What if that happens to me?” and her imagination is off and running.

Another irrational feature of fear is “panic buying.” People rush to the stores and buy all the toilet paper, antiseptic cleaners, flour, and bottled water they can get their hands on. If one store is out of supplies, they try to beat the crowds to the next store. It’s then that the “what ifs” strike again. What if the world runs out of toilet paper or antiseptic wipes? What if all the stores shut down? What if [fill in the blank]…?

Now would be a good time to slow down and practice your mindfulness exercises…

 

A Blessing and a Curse

Technology is wonderful. In times like these, when we are mandated to stay away from each other, we can stay connected with family and friends via video chat, emails, and other social media. Think of the folks in the 1918 flu pandemic. They didn’t have the ability to stay connected with their loved ones they way we do.

But, as mentioned before, technology also enables us to overload on information. It’s so tempting to watch every news show about the coronavirus, to view all the horrific online videos, to absorb all the news we can get our hands on in the name of “staying informed.”

Don’t overdo it. Limit your exposure to “facts”—which, in case you haven’t noticed, seem to change from day to day. Stick to trusted news sources. Barbara Reynolds, PhD, a psychologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, probably said it best: “Modern communication allows people to have a more intimate experience with a threat that’s not real.”

 

What To Do

There are some things you can do to protect yourself—and when you’ve done all these things, relax! The coronavirus will not last forever. Brilliant scientists all over the world are working as fast as they can to develop treatments and vaccines.

In the meantime, do what the best experts have advised:

  • Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Stay home as much as possible, even if you don’t feel sick
  • Avoid crowds
  • Avoid all non-essential travel and shopping
  • Keep 6 feet of distance between yourself and others when out
  • Get plenty of sleep—sleep strengthens your immune system
  • Follow all recommendations from health authorities

 

Uncertainty is Okay!

Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of life. Think of a time in your life when you weren’t sure what to do or what was going to happen. Now think of today—you made it!

Don’t worry, because worry never, ever solves problems. In fact, it makes problems worse. It robs you of enjoyment, sleep, and energy. Take control over things you can control. For example, if you’ve lost your job, don’t waste your energy worrying about it. Rather, use that energy to search for another job, polish up your resumé, or network with your contacts. Everything will work out.

And every night when you lie down to sleep, think to yourself, “I’m one day closer to the end of the pandemic.”

 

Help With Mental Health

At times, we all need a bit of mental health support. Elumind Centres for Brain Excellence is here to help. Please go to our website, Elumind.com, and book a free phone consultation.

We’ll all get through this together. And that’s a promise.