It's More Than Panic — The Pandemic Can Trigger Trauma, Study Suggests

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
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Think back on the past year: the first time you heard the term COVID-19, the moment it was declared a pandemic, and every moment in between. For most, these moments were wrought with fear and uncertainty, and they significantly affected mental health. 

Rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts increased as a result of the pandemic. Now, research says the panic surrounding the coronavirus can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-like symptoms.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, surveyed 1,040 participants to learn how they responded to the stress of the pandemic. The research found more than 13% of people experienced PTSD-related symptoms. This percentage is staggering when you compare it to the National Center for PTSD data, which states only about 7 to 8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD in their lifetime.

Because PTSD is associated with past traumas, the pandemic doesn't fit into the existing diagnostic criteria. However, "Research shows this ongoing global stressor can trigger traumatic stress symptoms," lead researcher Melanie Takarangi, B.A., B.Sc., Ph.D., says in a news release.  

Symptoms of PTSD

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), PTSD is characterized by (among other things): 

  • Direct exposure to a traumatic event 
  • Witnessing a traumatic event 
  • Unwanted and upsetting memories 
  • Nightmares 
  • Flashbacks
  • Emotional distress
  • Difficulty sleeping

Participants in the study reported experiencing intrusive thoughts, as well as disturbing and unwanted images or memories associated with the pandemic. 

"We found that traumatic stress was related to future events, such as worry about oneself or a family member contracting COVID-19, to direct contact with the virus, as well as indirect contact such as via the news and government lockdown—a non-life-threatening event," says co-author Victoria Bridgland, a Ph.D. student studying PTSD triggers. 

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How to cope with ongoing trauma.

The intent of this research was to raise awareness of these effects since they don't fall into a clinical diagnosis of PTSD. "Long-term, comprehensive documentation of COVID-19–related traumatic stress reactions will allow health professionals to help people who could otherwise fall through the cracks," the study states. 

The sooner someone can recognize their symptoms as trauma, the sooner they can receive the necessary support and tools to process it—the same is true for people experiencing general psychological distress, like anxiety or depression. Here are a few expert-approved ways to deal with trauma

1. Talk about it. 

Psychiatrist and PTSD-specialist Shaili Jain, M.D., acknowledges that it can be difficult to talk openly about trauma, for a variety of reasons. However, "Traumatic thoughts and memories that remain 'unspeakable' or 'unthinkable' for too long often impede our brain's natural process of recovery after trauma," she explains. 

Sharing the experience with others, especially professionally trained therapists, can help improve PTSD symptoms. Keep in mind, processing this trauma won't be easy. 

"When PTSD sufferers even think about their trauma, it is common for them to experience psychological distress and marked physiological reactions such as sweating, breathing difficulties, or heart palpitations," Jain says. This is the brain's natural reaction, but over time and with the proper tools, she says people can learn to regain control over their emotions. 

2. Practice breathwork.

Breathwork is a form of active meditation that helps people deal with anxiety, stress, and lingering trauma, breathwork teacher Gwen Dittmar once told mbg. Try this simple healing breathwork for releasing traumatic memories.

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3. Try muscle relaxation.

The body tends to store stress in the hips and the shoulders, so practicing these six techniques from personal trainer Jason Williams, NASM-CPT, may provide some relief. 

If you're not sure where you're storing your stress, psychologist and certified yoga teacher Gail Parker, Ph.D., C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, recommends drawing a body map to take note of the places you're feeling stressed and the places you're feeling relaxed.

Then, bring awareness to the stress spots and breathe into them. Here's how: "Imagine you could feel any way in the whole, wide world that you want it to feel," Parker says. "And instead of thinking about what that is, just let that answer bubble up in you. And when you get an answer within yourself, imagine that you can breathe into that feeling. And when you exhale, breathe it out and let it surround you." 

4. Learn to grieve. 

Learning the difference between grieving and ruminating can make it easier to process trauma

"Grieving is an embodied experience that moves the pain out and through, whereas ruminating is a 'head' experience that keeps the pain stuck," transformation coach Sheryl Paul, M.A., previously told mbg. Understanding that it's OK to sit with and feel quote-unquote negative emotions, like pain or anger, is an essential step in grieving.

While each of these tactics can be helpful, if you're experiencing ongoing symptoms of PTSD or other trauma-related challenges, consider reaching out to a professional for support.

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