COVID PTSD: Internet exaggeration or post-pandemic probability?

Posted at 6:49 PM, Mar 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-12 23:39:09-05

We all remember where we were that moment it began to sink in- COVID-19 was no longer a joke. Now, it was a threat to our lives and livelihoods.

Life seemed to switch overnight. Homes changed from a place of peace to an office space that your new-found coworkers happened to live in.

"As you can tell, my office has been turned into a classroom," noted Karla Perez, who is always learning to balance work and family.

With that shift came stress, and lots of it.

"He is so used to, 'Daddy is home, Daddy is mine,' so that was a really interesting boundary," said Dr. Bruce Bowles, Jr., father of two.

"I feel like you're accessible so much more, but at the same time, you're not showing, like, the best you because you're not in that head-space that you would be when you're at work," Perez said.

On top of that, our old coping mechanisms seemingly disappeared.

"When the stress gets to you, I had that 20 minute commute home to detox it out, whereas now, if I'm stressed about something, I can turn around and run right into my kids," said Dr. Bowles.

But as we do, we persevered, we adapted and we overcame.

"I set a time that I would work until maybe five or six o'clock in the evening, and I would shut my computer, and that was it. No emails, no more work. I would shut the door to the office, and I would go, you know, help with dinner and help with homework or whatever needed to be done, or sit down and just kind of chat or watch TV with my kids, and then also making sure that that boundary was open on the weekends," explained Dr. Laura Weiser Erlandson, who had to share an office space with her family for a period of the pandemic.

As we come out of this pandemic and adjust to our new normal, what damage will we bring with us? If you ask the internet, it's COVID PTSD.

The Mayo Clinic defines post-traumatic stress disorder as a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms could include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.

“PTSD is about more than just a trauma. It's about whenever we struggled to integrate that trauma in meaningful ways into the story of our life. It causes chronic stress, and that chronic stress associated with PTSD, that really causes the difficulties in people's lives," said Dr. Sam Fiala, Department Chair of Counseling and Psychology at Texas A&M University - Central Texas.

Will we have a form of COVID PTSD? For a majority of us, the answer is no.

“I'd say for the majority of people, again, it wasn't an event. It's an extended period of time that's a collection of events, and so we probably wouldn't clinically define it as PTSD for most people," Dr. Fiala explained. "Going into the pandemic, it felt abrupt, but it really wasn't that. It was staged, kind of, what we experienced, now looking back on it. And I think coming out of it is going to be staged as well, which will be to our benefit. It will allow us time to kind of adjust and adapt and figure out, you know, what we want our new reality to be."

As we find our way back, experts say it's important to find a way to ease that pandemic stress.

"Don't stress about how you distress. You know, if you have a friend that says, 'Oh, I always go and I light some candles and take a bath and that works for me,' and you think, 'Oh, I can't do that. Whenever I light candles, I'm worried the house is going to burn down,' and they get stressed about the thing that's supposed to make them unstressed. So whatever works for you is the best answer," said Dr. Fiala.

While we may be nearing the edge of the woods, we are not leaving this unprecedented time empty-handed.

"What I anticipate for us is hyper-awareness of germs and cleanliness, which is going to be a great thing, just like, in many ways, it was for the [Great Depression]. You know, having people learn to be more mindful of their money probably was a good thing for our economic health as a country. For us, you know, generations that experienced the pandemic, being more mindful of hand washing and if you're not feeling well, not going into work sick," Dr. Fiala theorized.

At minimum, most can agree the pandemic has brought on one thing - a changed perspective.

"There are a lot of bad things that happened with this pandemic, but there are also a lot of good things that I now appreciate," Dr. Weiser Erlandson said.

“I am going to appreciate people more, appreciate hugs more… being able to just shake somebody’s hand. I’ve always been one of those that loves a firm hand shake, and once we can do that again it’s going to be like ‘Oh my God! Yay!’” Perez chimed in.

“The resiliency of taking the family through it, of finding a way of getting ourselves through it, the fear, the anxiety. It made our marriage a lot stronger, even that it already was. We finish each other’s sentences now or we finish each other’s ideas," said Dr. Bowles.

Ideas and actions that will affect us, for better or worse, as we move into post-pandemic life.

“No matter what is out there, you have to be able to live your life. We can’t stop everything," Dr. Weiser Erlandson concluded.