Effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic on PTSD

National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic on PTSD, single virion with no background

The COVID-19 pandemic creates stressors like fear about getting sick, concern for loved ones, isolation, job loss and new childcare and family demands. If you have been through traumatic events in the past, you may have learned to cope well in crisis situations. However, dealing with the pandemic is unique; some ways people cope—like eating out or watching or playing sports—may not be an option. For those with PTSD, the pandemic may trigger or affect your PTSD symptoms.

PTSD Symptoms Can Be Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic

PTSD affects many aspects of life. It may cause you to feel anxious, unsafe and on high alert. It may make you less interested or less willing to do things most people consider safe. With PTSD, you may see the world as dangerous or worry about your ability to handle difficult situations. Trusting others and being intimate with others can be challenging.

Here are some ways the pandemic can further affect PTSD-related symptoms and difficulties:

  • Feeling more on guard or unsafe. Health and safety are concerns for everyone during this time. If you have PTSD, these concerns might be more intense and frequent than for others. You may want to avoid other people more than usual or find that you are extremely worried about getting the virus. Places that felt safe before the pandemic may now cause you to feel anxious. You may also find that you have an even stronger urge to avoid being in open public places. And, you may feel more "keyed up" than usual, even about things other than COVID-19.
  • More trauma triggers. You may find that you are experiencing more triggers, or reminders of your trauma. Hearing others talk about the pandemic as if we are fighting a war, or a battle with COVID-19 or an invisible enemy may bring up uncomfortable feelings and memories. For people, whose trauma involved difficulty breathing, wearing masks, or seeing others do so may remind them of that event
  • Not doing things that are still considered safe. There may be things you cannot do right now because of COVID-19. However, if you find that you are not doing things that are considered safe, it may be because of your PTSD. This may be things like taking care of your health and basic needs like shopping or exercising. Or it may be things you used to enjoy like spending time outdoors, watching movies, and catching up with friends and family via telephone or video chat.
  • An increase in negative thoughts and feelings. You might have more negative thoughts right now, especially thoughts that may be connected to COVID-19. For example, you might think: "I can't trust others to do the right thing," or I have no control over anything." Or you may find you feel guilt or shame because the virus is changing your ability to do important things for yourself or others. You may feel angrier and more irritable, especially if you cannot do activities that normally help you blow off steam. You may also have a short fuse with your loved ones because you are together more than usual and out of your normal routines.
  • Problems with sleep and concentration. You may find it more difficult to concentrate and do the things that helped you focus before the pandemic. Added worry and stress can make it difficult to get good sleep. You may find it harder than usual to fall sleep or stay asleep if you are worrying more or your PTSD symptoms get more severe.

Tips for Healthy Coping

Coping skills you normally use, or learned in treatment, that have helped you in the past may be harder to practice during the pandemic. These suggestions may help you find ways to cope:

  • Get PTSD treatment. There are a number of PTSD treatments that have been shown to work. Treatment for your PTSD can also lead to improved functioning and quality of life. Getting PTSD treatment now can help you cope with the additional stressors of COVID-19. Learn more about PTSD treatments. See resources for finding a therapist.
  • Do activities that feel meaningful to you. Doing things that mean something to you and you enjoy can have a big impact on your mood. Try safely connecting with family members and friends, learning a new hobby, supporting your children in their schoolwork or spending time outside.
  • Use good self-care skills. Try to focus on the things you can control rather than the things you can't control. Be kind to yourself; the pandemic affects everyone. Avoid using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs; this kind of negative coping can make things worse in the long run. Instead, try keeping a routine, getting good sleep and eating healthy to help manage your stress. Review this list of self-help strategies to find one that works best for you. Here are some that might be especially useful:
    • The COVID Coach free mobile app helps connect you to important resources for coping and adapting during the pandemic. Tools are available to help with stress, staying well, safe, healthy and connected. There are also tips to help navigate challenges such as parenting, caregiving and working from home while social distancing or being sheltered in place.
    • The PTSD Coach app and PTSD Coach Online website provide information about PTSD and getting treatment, a self-assessment for PTSD and tools that can help you manage the stresses of daily life with PTSD. Tools include relaxation skills, help with sleep problems and anger management. You can customize tools based on your preferences. You can integrate your own contact list), photos and music into the PTSD Coach app.
  • Reach out for help. If you see a therapist or other mental health professional or have seen one in the past, reach out to them for support during this time. You may find you need only a few meetings in order to get back on track with your recovery. It may be possible to continue treatment by telephone or video. Talk to your mental health provider to determine the best option for you. If you are feeling overwhelmed:
Posted on BrainLine May 21, 2021. Reviewed May 21, 2021.

From the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, US Department of Veterans Affairs. www.ptsd.va.gov.