The United States has seen its fair share of crisis and tragedy but nothing quite like the effects of the COVID-19 virus. This virus has had a worldwide impact and Americans continue to undergo drastic lifestyle changes. These conditions are traumatic, to say the least, and they’ve been going on for a while now. While each person experiences trauma in different ways, the longer this pandemic continues the greater the risk of complex PTSD affecting larger numbers of people.
What Is Complex PTSD?
PTSD, also known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is an anxiety-based condition that results from experiencing a traumatic event, such as a car accident or natural disaster. When trauma repeats over the course of months or years, Complex PTSD may develop. Examples of situations that can cause Complex PTSD include:
- Ongoing neglect in your childhood
- Living in a war-torn area for a long time
- Abuse of any kind that’s ongoing
- Survivors of human trafficking
- Any situation that causes ongoing anxiety for months or years
Long-term traumatic stress lies at the heart of Complex PTSD. Stress is known to target certain key areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. These areas play pivotal roles in managing how you perceive stressful situations and how you react to them. With complex PTSD, these areas become highly-sensitized to stress, in general, leaving your nervous system on high alert, even when circumstances are calm or normal.
COVID-19 and Its Effects
A pandemic like COVID-19 not only creates a health crisis but its aftereffects inflict psychological trauma on a population. In order to keep the virus from spreading, people all across the country have had to change their lifestyles in drastic ways:
- Stay-at-home orders
- Wearing masks
- Social distancing
- Changes in employment status
- Financial strain
- Losing loved ones and not being able to attend their funerals
Even people trying to recover from alcohol and substance abuse have had to make difficult changes since alcohol rehab programs have been forced to operate in ways that can disrupt the recovery process. In effect, all of these changes combined have created the perfect recipe for mass psychological trauma.
Can COVID-19 Cause Complex PTSD?
COVID-19 has been around for months and shows no signs of ending in the near future. These conditions have the potential to leave many people in a continuous state of anxiety and fear of the unknown. The safe and free lifestyle the United States has enjoyed for so long is undergoing radical change. A loss of safety and security lies at the root of trauma, in general, as well as at the root of COVID-19’s effects on the country. Considering how long the country has been in the grips of COVID-19 and the ongoing changes people have to had to make, this is a perfect recipe for Complex PTSD, especially for those of us experiencing the worst of this pandemic.
Symptoms of Complex PTSD
More than anything else, it’s how you perceive COVID-19 and its effects that determine whether you experience distress or trauma. This means the risk of developing Complex PTSD varies from person to person. Also keep in mind that even though you may experience one or more of the following symptoms, Complex PTSD only applies when symptoms persist for a long time, such as for weeks or months.
Symptoms of Complex PTSD to watch for include:
- Feelings of worry or anxiety interfere with your ability to function
- Problems sleeping
- Avoiding people and places that relate to the trauma
- Feeling on-edge
- Experiencing high-stress levels
- Problems thinking or concentrating
- Feeling hyper-vigilant or always on alert
Risk Factors for Complex PTSD
For some people, past experiences involving trauma may make them more susceptible to developing complex PTSD during the COVID-19 crisis. In turn, certain risk factors can make you more susceptible. Risk factors to consider include:
- Existing mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety-based disorders
- Having a family history of mental illness
- A lack of supportive relationships
- Being unemployed
- Experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse during childhood
- Working a high-stress job
- Money problems
Things You Can Do to Protect Yourself
While chemical imbalances in the brain often contribute to mental health problems, what you think about and how you behave can either reinforce feelings of anxiety or help reduce them. If you find yourself constantly thinking or worrying about getting sick or losing your job, it only feeds into the feelings of unrest bred by COVID-19. Paying attention to what you’re thinking about and neutralizing destructive thought patterns with positive, empowering thoughts can go a long way towards easing the strain of this national crisis we’re all experiencing.
Here are a few other measures you can take to protect yourself:
- Spend time with friends and family, even if it’s just face-time, or online
- Take daily walks to keep stress levels in check
- Join a PTSD support group
- Consider getting counseling if you’re prone to depression or feelings of anxiety
Like any other life stressor, it’s best to address potential problems sooner rather than later to keep things from getting worse. This is especially true if you suspect you are experiencing symptoms of complex PTSD.
1 – Medical News Today, “Complex PTSD: Symptoms, Behaviors, and Recovery
2 – Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, “Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19”
3 – National Criminal Justice Reference Service, “Long-Term Stress Reactions”
4 – Sunshine Behavioral Health, “Inpatient Alcohol Rehab Options”