It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger and to avoid it.
The fight-or-flight response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when not in danger.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war and combat, rape or other violent assaults.
The American Psychiatric Association says PTSD has been known by many names in the past, such as “shell shock” during the years of World War I, and “combat fatigue” after World War II. However, PTSD does not just happen to veterans. It can occur in people of any ethnicity, nationality or culture and age. PTSD affects about 3.5% of U.S. adults, and an estimated one-in-11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Women are twice as likely as men to have the condition.
People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as loud noise or an accidental touch.
While most, but not all, traumatized people experience short-term symptoms, the majority do not develop chronic PTSD. Not everyone has been through a dangerous event. Some experiences, like the sudden death of a loved one, may also cause it. Symptoms usually begin early, within three months of the traumatic event, but sometimes later.
Symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work to be considered PTSD. The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within six months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people the condition becomes chronic.
The latest severe cause of stress, of course, is coronavirus – COVID-19. This continues to remove any semblance of normalcy, leaving instead a scary, unsure world filled with everyone wearing masks while looking suspiciously at everyone who is not. There are mass graves, ventilator shortages, racist attacks, layoffs and complete uncertainty as to what happens next.
Health care workers may be at a higher risk for developing PTSD during these stressful times. People at home are also susceptible to the effects of this trauma as we experience changes in our normal routines, job loss and fear of contracting the virus.
Worrying about loved ones getting sick and constant exposure to the news are also stressors that trigger the sympathetic fight or flight, system in our brain.
All of us have the potential to develop post-trauma symptoms.
Processing work, emotions or even day-to-day tasks have become increasingly difficult as coronavirus has raged on. It is important to limit exposure to negative news and seek mental health care if you’re feeling traumatized or overwhelmed.
Remember that as Americans we can persevere though revolution, civil war, world wars and depressions and we will come through coronavirus with flying colors.
“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, or not to anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.” - Buddha
Overfield is an advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Park County. Call (307) 250-2978.