A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Pandemic PTSD: Long-term impacts of stress, anxiety

A woman looks out her window.

Stressors from COVID-19 may lead to long-term mental health impacts like PTSD.

Editor’s note: This article was published on September 21, 2020. COVID-19 information and recommendations are subject to change. For the most up-to-date information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website or view our most recent COVID-19 blog posts.

The novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has created several challenges, which include wearing masks and social distancing. However, there may be long-term impacts on overall mental health that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or PTSD-like symptoms.

At this time, you may be experiencing many different emotions and stressors in your daily life because of the pandemic. The human brain has a finite amount of brainpower to use at any given time. “So, when we are worried about something we use a significant amount of our cognitive ability, leaving a small percentage to cope with other remaining stressors and responsibilities in life,” said Timothy Foster, licensed professional counselor for Marshfield Clinic Health System.

New way of looking at PTSD

Typically, people view PTSD as a single episode of trauma. This has changed in recent years. For example, experts previously thought that people diagnosed with PTSD experienced a single event such as a car accident, war experience, sexual abuse or assault. “We have transitioned to a more complex view of trauma,” Foster said. “Research also shows any underlying anxiety disorders may increase the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms or panic disorders due to stress from the pandemic.”

People with a history of mental health disorders or substance abuse are considered to be high risk for developing a stress or trauma-related disorder. If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, your mind operates differently. Thoughts move very quickly and often negatively. “This, paired with daily stress, can trigger irrational thoughts,” Foster said.

Society is experiencing more challenges with the current pandemic than at any time before. Today’s technology presents both significant challenges and benefits. “A contributing factor for developing anxiety and depression during the pandemic is the direct immersion into social media,” Foster said. “We’re able to comment about events and become a part of the media, which makes it feel more personal.”

On the other hand, technology also can help maintain relationships during social distancing. Maintaining relationships and staying connected to supportive communities is crucial to long-term mental health. Our reality has changed and may look like this for some time. Foster encourages you to connect with loved ones with video and phone calls. If you were attending in-person support groups prior to COVID-19, it is beneficial to find out how they are continuing to meet, what resources they have available or seek out online communities.

Develop positive coping methods

“Self-care has become a cliché in pop culture, but taking care of yourself and maintaining a sense of community is one of the best things we can do,” Foster said.

Connecting with others creates social and biological resilience since our mind and body influence each other. Managing your emotions can lower your stress and can build your personal resilience. Hobbies, self-exploration and mindfulness are common positive self-care techniques to balance pandemic stressors.

Foster recommends monitoring yourself, not just for COVID-19, but also for emotional and behavioral health. “It’s helpful to develop a mindset of looking at what you are doing and its impacts,” he said.

One useful technique for coping with pandemic stressors is to utilize a cost-benefit analysis. This helps to create more awareness. Experts recommend to increase benefits while minimizing costs for such coping strategies. For example, using alcohol can dull physical or emotional pain, but comes with financial, health, relationships or even legal costs. In the end, the costs are much higher than the benefits.

“If you’re struggling, connect with people you care about and seek out counseling options,” Foster said. “Resources are available online and telehealth provides safe and effective access to medical and mental health services.”

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