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Trauma Amid The Coronavirus: 8 Ways To Prevent Symptoms From Worsening

Shaili Jain, M.D.
Psychiatrist & PTSD Specialist By Shaili Jain, M.D.
Psychiatrist & PTSD Specialist
Shaili Jain, M.D., is a psychiatrist and PTSD specialist who currently serves as the Medical Director for Integrated Care at the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System.
Portrait with Cracks / Refractions

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, people everywhere are adjusting to a new normal. As we're all experiencing, the stress of these adjustments certainly differ from our regular day-to-day stress. And for those living with trauma, there's a very real possibility their symptoms could get worse under the current circumstances.

With standard ways to cope unavailable (like going to the gym, meeting up with friends, or going to a concert), this can be a very difficult time, indeed. Many mental health conditions can be exacerbated by stressors, and in the case of traumatic stress, environmental cues can be triggering. Watching news coverage of the pandemic, for example, could be very overwhelming for a trauma survivor.

These feelings can further trigger a sense of helplessness, powerlessness, fear, and anxiety—all feelings they experienced during their original traumas, which may worsen trauma symptoms. That can look like worsening nightmares, more intrusive thoughts or flashbacks, angry or irritable moods, and distrust toward people. Thankfully, there are many ways we can prevent this from happening:

1. Acceptance.

Accept the current situation for what is: a situation that is stressful and anxiety-provoking and that we have limited control over. Anticipate that you will feel more stressed and anxious in the coming days and weeks. Rather than denying or fighting it, or "white-knuckling" your way through these tough times, be more accepting and kinder to yourself.


2. Be proactive.

Be proactive about what you can control. Follow healthy hygiene habits as laid out by vetted and trustworthy sources such as the CDC.

Start to make contingency plans for if you or a loved one get sick, face economic challenges, or disruption to school schedules. Make sure you have adequate supplies to shelter at home such as essential medicines, water, and food. 

3. Have an adaptive mindset.

Change is the only constant as we shift every day into a new reality. Now is the time to be flexible and let go of carefully laid-out long-term plans or projects. Go day by day and prepare to be dynamic and nimble in your mindset.

4. Wherever possible, keep structure and routine in your life.

In times of change, hold on to whatever routine you can, and enjoy every minute of it. It might be your morning coffee or taking the dog for a walk. Such day-to-day habits can be an anchoring force amid the chaos.


5. Double down on your favorite healthy stress-reducing activities.

Identify your top five healthy ways of coping with stress. It might be listening to music, taking a walk in the park, reading, meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation. Whatever your choice, pepper your day with more of these activities as an antidote to stress.

6. Infuse your day with steady doses of social activity.

Check-in with supportive family and friends via text, phone calls, Skype, or FaceTime to prevent social isolation.


7. Have periods of time that are media (including social media) free.

Don't go down the rabbit hole of 24-hour news cycles and social media. Block off chunks of the day as a coronavirus-free zone, and enjoy a distracting activity instead, e.g., watch a comedy show or stream an engaging drama—keep the content light and in contrast to the tone of current events.

8. Stay connected with your mental health professionals.

There may be times when, despite your best efforts, your symptoms become too distressing. Identify the warning signals that you need to seek help. Perhaps you snap more easily with loved ones or start to isolate. Talk to your mental health professional, many of whom are being enabled to provide mental health care via telemedicine, and be aware of all the resources available to you in a crisis.

And remember, even while social distancing, you are not alone, and we're all in this together.

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