When we talk about trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, there is usually a singular life-altering event that triggers an intense emotional and physical response. With the pandemic, however, we haven’t witnessed one stressful event — we’ve experienced, and continue to experience, many traumatic events.
For nearly two years, people have experienced a ton of grief and loss. People have lost loved ones. They’ve lost jobs and financial security, and they’ve also lost their identity, sense of self and, most notably, control.
“We are now in the midst of this collective, complex trauma that is ongoing, is unpredictable, and has no clear end in sight,” said Jennifer King, an assistant professor and the co-director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity at Case Western Reserve University.
Evidence suggests that the pandemic — and all the fear, stress, isolation and grief it has caused — has been one major traumatic stressor that’s causing all kinds of PTSD-like symptoms. Research from Case Western Reserve University found that 85% of participants were experiencing at least one symptom of post-traumatic stress in 2020 and early 2021.
Another study found that about one-quarter of participants met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD — that’s up from the usual PTSD rate of 5% in the general population and four times higher than the rates of PTSD observed in combat soldiers who have returned from war, King said.
If you’ve felt on edge recently or noticed that you’ve been particularly negative, sensitive or withdrawn, COVID-related trauma could be at play. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have PTSD. Many of us may be experiencing a degree of PTSD-like symptoms, but it isn’t until those symptoms start impacting your daily functioning that it becomes a serious cause for concern. Still, the effects of trauma can weigh on us — no matter how mild or severe they are. Here are some signs of them:
You’re super on edge
One very pronounced symptom of trauma is hypervigilance. After a traumatic event occurs, people with PTSD tend to have trouble feeling grounded or centered in various situations or relationships. King said experiencing or witnessing trauma can put us in an activated state where we’re constantly scanning for the next threat.
Because all of our energy gets focused on survival, hypervigilance can lead to difficulty concentrating and focusing. For many people, this symptom manifests as big emotional responses to small issues or stressors.
“You’re on edge all the time. Little things frighten you, you react very irrationally to things that are very, very tiny,” said Tamar Rodney, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing who specializes in trauma and psychiatry.
Another good example of hypervigilance: feeling extremely anxious and sensitive to coughs and sneezes around you.
Emotional exhaustion and physical exhaustion are not traditional post-traumatic stress responses, but in the context of this pandemic — where the traumatic stressors are ongoing — a lot of people are feeling especially fatigued.
When our bodies go into flight-or-fight mode, as they do during traumatic experiences, we exert a lot of energy. Throw in the fact that our stress systems have been chronically activated with stressor after stressor, and it’s only natural that we’re going to feel physically and mentally depleted. Trauma can be draining.
“It’s very much related to living in and being kind of incubated in this collective trauma and collective stress that’s going on,” King said.
You’ve been particularly negative
Trauma often leads to intrusive, negative thinking. In the wake of trauma, people can find it difficult to look into the future and feel positive about where they and the world might be headed, King said.
Some people develop a negative perception of themselves and their self-esteem may take a hit. “Everything becomes very negative in the way they operate,” Rodney said.
You have more physical aches and pains
Traumatic stress, especially when it’s ongoing and chronic, can affect our physical health. Over time, stress and trauma can result in decreased immune functioning along with increased tension and pain throughout the body.
You haven’t been sleeping well
Traumatic stress can lead to all sorts of sleep disturbances, including insomnia, issues falling and staying asleep, stress dreams and nightmares. Estimates suggest that up to 91% of people with PTSD have issues with sleep.
Sleep issues are often overlooked, but they impact everything we do, Rodney said. Sleep resets the mind and body, and a lack of sleep can really disrupt our quality of life and daily functioning.
You’ve been withdrawn
Avoidance, or being purposefully detached from others, is another common effect of being exposed to trauma. With COVID specifically, many people are having trouble reengaging with activities, places and people they once enjoyed.
There’s a difference between physically distancing to lower your chances of being exposed to COVID and being held back by fear and deciding to avoid any opportunity to be social. There are still ways to connect with others in the context of COVID.
Rodney said withdrawing becomes “problematic” when “you’re not able to do the functional things that would make life meaningful for you anymore.”
How to manage these symptoms
The first step is recognizing when these symptoms become a problem. With all of these symptoms, there is an appropriate level and a point at which they hurt our ability to function. If any of these symptoms are significantly impacting your life, it’s time to seek out professional help.
“There is no shame in experiencing these feelings,” Rodney said.
It’s also important to develop healthy coping mechanisms. Reengage yourself socially with people. Exercise regularly. Be patient and listen to your body. Symptoms can appear at any time, sometimes months or years after the traumatic event, and there is no set path or time frame for recovery. Let yourself heal and process your emotions at your own pace.
Remember that you aren’t alone and that so many others are experiencing physical and emotional symptoms as a result of all the pandemic trauma.
“Our responses are normal,” King said. “It’s the circumstances that are abnormal.”