7 Red Flags You're Experiencing Trauma From The COVID-19 Pandemic

Here's how to spot coronavirus-related post-traumatic stress disorder, plus advice on how to address it.
Illustration: Alexandra Bowman for HuffPost; Photo: Getty

Bent Not Broken is a look back on the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has disrupted our mental health, plus advice on how to manage our well-being moving forward.

The coronavirus pandemic began a year ago, which is almost incomprehensible. It feels like no time has passed since the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, but also like it has been eons since we enjoyed a “normal” day with no masks or social distancing.

For many people, the last year has been the hardest on record. Sickness has run rampant, people are still dying, joblessness has soared and many of the comforts that we’re accustomed to are unavailable.

Mental health experts worry about the inevitable effects that the pandemic will have on society. Some people will face anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ― a condition often associated with, but not limited to, military combat ― as a result of these hard times.

According to Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, many people are experiencing trauma right now, which, clinically speaking, involves being personally exposed to or witnessing a traumatic event that threatens your life or your physical integrity.

“Getting COVID, being intubated and surviving ... that could be a traumatic event,” Wright said.

Exposure to traumatic events can lead to a number of mental health conditions, said Aoife O’Donovan, an associate professor in the psychiatry department at the University of California, San Francisco. Some people will develop anxiety and depression. A smaller group will face PTSD ― although it’s important to remember that not all traumatic events will lead to PTSD, she said.

Below, mental health experts share some of the signs of pandemic-induced trauma, a trauma-related mental health disorder, or PTSD:

1. Newly developed habits that are disrupting your daily life.

During these tough times, it can be hard to parse when our reactions to the pandemic move into the worrisome range, according to Matt Robinson, director of the outpatient trauma clinic at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.

He said that people should cut themselves some slack. If you find yourself easily agitated lately, drinking a little more wine than normal (emphasis on a little) or require some additional emotional support, it’s OK.

In the year since the pandemic started, Robinson said his biggest role has been helping to normalize behaviors and reminding people that we are all struggling to cope. While not all of our coping mechanisms are ideal, they only become a real problem if they disrupt what we need to do to keep ourselves healthy and safe.

Meaning, if your coping mechanisms result in the inability to take care of yourself and go about your daily life, that is likely a sign of a bigger problem.

2. Noticeable shifts in drinking or use of other substances.

Looking for ways to escape while navigating our more isolated reality, a lot of us are turning to substances like alcohol. While Robinson stressed that this is not necessarily a problem, there is a line between what is OK and what signals a larger issue.

The consumption of a cold beer or a glass of red wine has long been associated with stress relief, and everyone is more stressed right now. But the overconsumption of alcoholic beverages or drugs can be linked to trauma and PTSD, particularly if it disrupts your life.

You may be dealing with something more than stress if your substance use interferes with your ability to go to work or meet other daily responsibilities.

3. Avoiding situations that remind you of your trauma.

When it comes to trauma or PTSD, Wright said that avoidance is the hallmark response. This can include not talking about the traumatic experience, avoiding people who remind you of the trauma or not going places that you associate with the experience.

Pandemic-related examples could be avoiding doctor appointments even though you have COVID-19 symptoms or being afraid to leave your house for needed errands.

Generally, this level of avoidance is so severe that it interferes with day-to-day necessities. (It should be clear at this point that disruption of daily life is a major warning sign that you’re experiencing trauma or PTSD.)

4. Taking part in risky behavior.

Any changes in behavior in the aftermath of trauma should be watched, O’Donovan said. In particular, engaging in risky behavior can be a red flag.

“Sometimes when looking at loved ones in the aftermath of trauma, the risky and destructive behavior can be quite obvious but not necessarily seen as a symptom of a mental health problem,” she said, adding that behaviors that threaten life or relationships are the ones that should be cause for concern.

“People might engage in dangerous driving or risky sexual behavior,” she said ― two things that are not always associated with PTSD or trauma but absolutely are warning signs.

5. Increased irritability or anger.

Unusual irritability or anger are cause for worry, according to Robinson, who added that this is more than a quick burst of frustration now and then.

“You don’t want irritability and anger to be spilling over and causing distressed kids or loved ones,” he said. “That’s when I start worrying for folks.”

In other words, if prolonged anger causes stress for those around you and puts relationships at risk, it may be time to speak to a mental health professional.

6. New or worsening physical symptoms like headaches, teeth grinding or stomach pains.

Trauma and PTSD symptoms can come in the form of physical ailments as well. Wright said that people are often more aware of the physical effects than the emotional ones, since the former are harder to ignore.

Muscle tension, stomach problems, increased heart rate, headaches and grinding of teeth can all be signs of trauma or PTSD.

Keep an eye on friends and family if they complain about these symptoms in the aftermath of trauma. “Oftentimes, it’s the people in our lives that are the ones who pick up on this stuff,” Wright said.

7. Nightmares about the pandemic.

According to O’Donovan, reexperiencing your trauma through flashback memories or nightmares can indicate a larger mental health issue. Pay attention to how often you have anxiety-provoking dreams related to COVID-19. It’s also worth noting if you have any physical symptoms as a reaction to the dream, including heart palpitations, sweating or terror.

What to do if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

Any or all of these symptoms can be a sign that you have developed PTSD as a result of trauma from the pandemic.

“If people are experiencing these symptoms, particularly if they are ongoing or impairing someone’s functioning, then reaching out for professional mental health advice is really warranted,” O’Donovan said.

And it’s important to look for help sooner rather than later.

“Oftentimes, people wait too long to seek out treatment,” Wright said. “They wait until they can’t function either at work or at home.”

Wright noted that telehealth options make it easier than ever to attend therapy appointments and that online therapy is just as effective as in-person treatments.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore it entirely and expect it to go away on its own. Addressing trauma from COVID-19 is a crucial step to returning to our pre-pandemic lives.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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