As the fallout from COVID-19 continues to ebb and flow, our lives may now carry stressors that look and feel like trauma. Even if you never lost your job, never became sick, and never lost a loved one to the pandemic, what have been the effects of prolonged lockdowns? Social distancing? Lack of childcare and unpredictable schooling?
Is it possible to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from stress alone?
What some psychotherapists previously referred to as “combat stress reaction” or “battle fatigue” was officially recognized as PTSD in 1980. At the time, war veterans were most associated with the syndrome from exposure to violent combat and war-related stressors. However, we now understand that exposure to a variety of losses often precedes PTSD, including those related to COVID or any number of life experiences.
What causes PTSD?
Roughly 6% of the U.S. population will experience PTSD at some point in their life. [*] While it’s not entirely understood why some develop the condition while others do not, traumatic events, genetics, and brain mechanisms each play a role.
It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma displays PTSD-related symptoms, and not everyone who develops PTSD needs psychiatric treatment.
However, we now understand that exposure to a variety of losses often precedes PTSD:
- • actual or threatened death
- • serious injury or health problems
- • physical or sexual assault
- • war and conflict
- • deep-rooted emotional experiences such as divorce
- • traumatic losses resulting from events such as the COVID-19 pandemic
Many people question why PTSD occurs in response to trauma and stressors. Studies have offered three probable explanations:
Stuck in survival mode
Studies suggest that the flashbacks experienced by many people with PTSD are a learned survival response in preparation of further traumatic experiences. They can create a feeling of constant hyperarousal. However, this response often prevents people from fully processing and “moving on” from the experience. [*]
Fight or flight hormones
Other studies have found higher levels of stress hormones like adrenaline in people with PTSD. This “fight or flight” response may dull pain sensations, but high levels of adrenaline continue to be produced even when there’s no danger. [*]
Changes in brain structure
The hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in processing emotions, appears smaller in people with PTSD. Studies suggest that a hippocampus that is not working properly causes the affected person to repeatedly relive traumatic events. [*]
How do I know if I have PTSD?
Only a licensed mental health professional can make a clinical diagnosis, but the following PTSD checklist from an assessment known as the PCL is a self-screening tool to help in the diagnosis of PTSD:
- • Intrusive thoughts, memories, or flashbacks
- • Recurrent nightmares
- • Avoidance of reminders of the trauma
- • Memory loss
- • Negative self-esteem and worldview
- • Loss of interest in activities
- • Emotionally numb or detached
- • Trouble sleeping
- • Irritability or anger
- • Hyperalert or hypervigilant
- • Easily startled
- • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
A person who has experienced an extremely stressful event may have a range of different problems as a result of their experience. However, most victims of PTSD have many of the above indicators, including some form of “re-experiencing”, avoidance, and hyperarousal symptoms.
Is PTSD treatable?
Like many mental illnesses, PTSD causes serious symptoms that make normal functioning challenging for months or even years. Special types of therapy and medication can improve symptoms, but they are not a cure.
Fortunately, patients with PTSD benefit from specialized types of therapy that force them to confront traumatic memories while also providing practical coping tools.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to return a sense of control, self-confidence, and predictability to patients in order to reduce avoidance behaviors. Therapists help patients reassess their thinking patterns into more balanced thoughts.
A person avoiding reminders of a traumatic experience may benefit from exposure therapy. A therapist will teach breathing techniques to ease the anxiety. They’ll also help you recount the traumatic experience while learning to face the things you have been avoiding in a safe environment.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
With EMDR, you will concentrate while moving a hand, flashing a light, or making a sound. The goal is to reframe and process traumatic memories in a more positive framework.
Disease, Divorce, and Diagnosis
Nearly 10 years ago, I was drained from the debilitating pain from Lyme Disease symptoms and the medication to treat them. I had to leave my teaching job, lost my mobility, and struggled with every day tasks of just being a human. The physical and emotional stress resulted in a PTSD diagnosis that has taken almost seven years to process.
Later, when an unexpected divorce stole my vision of my future as both a wife and mother, signs of PTSD manifested in triggers —songs, destinations, household items and possessions. It seems as if everything around me was an unavoidable, painful trigger.
What I’ve learned, is that for some people, it becomes easier to suppress and avoid the reminders surrounding a trauma than to confront the emotions that they sparked.
For myself, I chose to allow myself to feel all of the emotions of my traumas whenever they come up and allow myself to process those feelings over time. Although I’ve grieved the life I lived prior to the prolonged trauma of sickness and divorce, I’ve also been able to slowly rebuild. With behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and EMDR, coupled with active healing of both my body and mind, I can now navigate the ups and downs of life without the embarrassment or the shame that may come along with a PTSD diagnosis.
In the end, no matter who you are, I do not wish my experiences of chronic illness or divorce on anyone. However, I’ve been able to adopt the mindset (most of the time) of being thankful for these traumas because I’ve experienced an exponential amount of personal growth and triumph.
My traumas are still there and are still very real. Sometimes my PTSD symptoms are overwhelming but my perspective has changed and I now possess the tools to get me through those episodes. It’s important for me to put this blog out there so we can break the stigma behind mental health. Our thoughts can sometimes be catastrophic, but remember, not everything you think is true. Additionally, setbacks don’t equate to failures. Although sometimes tedious and emotionally exhausting, setbacks are simply an opportunity for you to grow.