While most people associate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to surviving or witnessing combat, assault or natural disaster, millions are reporting symptoms of PTSD since the onset of Covid. We are being bombarded with images of illness, loss, fear, anger, depression and suicide. People are taking to social media to talk about the changes they have experienced over the past several weeks; such as, nightmares, disrupted sleep, panic attacks, depression and anxiety. According to the National Center for Health Statistic suicide rates in the United States are at the highest levels in almost thirty years.
Before we were hearing about Covid-19 or quarantine, people were talking more about PTSD and the devastating long-term affects traumatic experiences have had on millions of people around the world. For the last twenty-three years I have been counseling men and women who have survived a variety of horrific events; such as, sexual assault, domestic violence, childhood abuse, combat, 9/11, mass shootings and sudden loss. I decided at an early age that I wanted to help people who felt alone and afraid. I spent years of my life feeling isolated, depressed and afraid and when I was in my early teens I started struggling with suicidal tendencies. I had to find ways to hold onto hope and keep myself connected to people that made me feel heard and believed to survive.
After I graduated with my Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University in 1996 I left my childhood home and began healing from years of shame and abuse. Certain times pop back into my mind as we grapple with the struggles during Covid-19. I remember sitting in my car when President Trump announced we were enduring a pandemic that would lead to immediate shutdowns and isolation. At first I was in disbelief. It reminded me of the day I sat with a friend getting ready for a workout as we watched planes crash into the World Trade Center. I remember thinking, “This cannot be happenning.” As the day progressed and more images of the attack were flashing all over different media sites the news started to sink in.
When the quarantine began back in mid March I thought, “This cannot last more than a couple of weeks.” Patients were panicking at the thought of being stuck at home. Within days of the lockdown I was having flashbacks of times during my abuse when I felt trapped and stranded. I was talking with friends and colleagues about all the potential issues that were arising. These conversations took place before we knew the extent of the pandemic. Once the first extension of the lockdown was announced I noticed that many people around me in my personal and professional life were decompensating.
Patients were reporting more symptoms of depression and PTSD. I thought to myself, “What can we do to prevent PTSD onset or help those who already had been struggling with this devastating diagnosis as the pandemic escalates?” During most of my career as a therapist I have talked to hundreds of people about PTSD to offer insight and understanding about the long-term affects of trauma. This was the first time it seemed like everyone that I am connected with had some form of PTSD. Everyone has been affected by Covid-19. Some are losing their jobs. Others are getting sick with the virus. Many people are feeling disconnected as they cannot have face to face contact with their family. Everyday we are hearing about thousands of people losing their life after contracting the virus. Healthcare workers are being inundated with horrific images of people suffering. Single parents are barely able to feed their children or get them the supplies they need for online schooling. People are having to say goodbye to loved ones without having an opportunity for an appropriate memorial service or funeral. A couple of weeks ago the world was shocked to learn about the suicide of top emergency room doctor, Dr. Lorna M. Breen. Reports indicated she did not have a history of mental illness prior to her death.
The question I keep coming back to is how do we find ways to deal with all the loss, grief and fear without developing a long-term stress reaction? When I heard about Dr. Breen’s suicide I wondered what kind of support she was receiving after leaving work each day. It was clear she had a family that loved her dearly. Who was she talking to when someone died in her ER? I began thinking about all the first responders, my patients, my friends and colleagues. I wondered, “What can I share with the world to help them understand PTSD and how to cope with such a difficult time, no matter the circumstances?”
There is so much unknown we are still facing months into the quarantine. We are living in uncertain times with no clear time table of when life will get back to some sense of normal. We have not been able to hug our friends or have face to face conversations with our doctors, therapists, teachers and for some immediate family members. Now is the time we really need to use our words. There is no magic answer for how to cope with all that we have endured and continue to sort through as the weeks go by.
At times like these I find it helpful to pull from a variety of coping strategies I have shared with patients and used for myself when my past feels like it is happening in the present. Here are just a few suggestions.
- Make contact with a friend via facetime at least once a day.
- Write down all the things in your life you have some control over.
- Make a vision board of things you want for your life moving forward.
- Exercise with a friend via facetime.
- Spend time with your pets
- Think about the advantages of spending time with those you are quarantined with.
- When you feel triggered by the lockdown, write down the difference between staying home and being trapped in an abusive relationship.
- If you are living with people you do not feel accepted by or safe with find a space in your home where you can share whatever thoughts you are having, even if that means sitting in your bedroom closet.
- Watch shows that make you laugh.
- Give yourself permission to cry.
- Find outlets to express your anger, even if that means opening your window once a day and letting out a big scream.
- Do not expect yourself to be perfect.
- Take advantage of the extra time to sleep in.
- Do yoga, sing or paint.
- Take hikes
- If you think you are developing or have depression, anxiety or are in mental distress reach out. Find online support groups. Look for agencies or treatment centers that are offering teletherapy
- Most importantly, tell yourself multiple times a day why staying home is a choice you are making to keep yourself and those around you safe.