COVID-19 and PTSD
Posted on 1 October 2021
Experts say the number of people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is rising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Trauma is an experience that threatens your life and health – or that of someone close to you,” says Charon Streit, a counselling psychologist at Mediclinic Gariep and Mediclinic Kimberley. “At present, the threat of COVID-19 might be causing you and your family trauma by negatively affecting your emotions, physical health and cognitive behaviour [your ability to think, reason, and remember].”
Although existing PTSD models largely focus on traumatic stress as a problem that occurs in response to past, not future, events, some studies are showing that given the unknown timeline of COVID-19, it’s likely that PTSD-like symptoms could develop in an individual who is anticipating any number of negative future events associated with the virus, such as themselves and/or their loved ones becoming sick.
Adriaan Grobler, National Trauma Coordinator for ER24, says that after any trauma, almost everyone experiences some of the symptoms of PTSD. “But this doesn’t mean you necessarily have it,” he explains. “A sense of disconnectedness, numbness and an inability to stop thinking about the event is common, but this is usually short-lived. After a few days or weeks, the symptoms eventually lift, as you begin to process and make sense of your ordeal. However, those who suffer from PTSD will continue to experience symptoms.”
The symptoms of PTSD can arrive suddenly or gradually, Grobler adds, and can often appear out of the blue. “They can be triggered by words, images or a smell that might remind you of the incident. Other red flags include trying to avoid reminders and experiencing increased anxiety and emotional arousal. More symptoms include a sense of hopelessness, mistrust, betrayal, loneliness, physical pain, flashbacks, nightmares and feelings of intense distress. Sweating, rapid breathing, muscle tension and nausea are other clues.”
Zamo Mbele, a clinical psychologist and member of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), explains who is at heightened risk of developing pandemic-related PTSD. Those who have:
- Lost a loved one to COVID-19
- Tested positive for COVID-19
- Recovered from COVID-19 but are experiencing stigma
or who are currently a:
- Healthcare worker on the frontline
- Young person picking up on family members’ stress.
One study on the traumatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that participants had PTSD-like symptoms for events that had not yet happened, which challenges the concept of traumatic stress as a problem pertaining only to the past. As the researchers noted, “Participants reported these reactions whether they had been directly (e.g. a positive COVID-19 diagnosis) or indirectly exposed (e.g. via media) to COVID-19, challenging the idea that people need to experience a direct, in-person event to develop PTSD-like symptoms.”
Grobler explains that trauma counselling is beneficial and the techniques used are similar, whether or not you have PTSD. “However, if you do have PTSD, your counsellor will take you through the event in smaller, more manageable steps in order to help you cope.”