The danger and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic has upended “normal” life for more than 6 months now, causing billions of people around the world to experience unexpected emotional turmoil. Though many may not realize it, that emotional turmoil can, and is, causing symptoms of trauma to manifest in both children and adults.
Understanding the definition of trauma
It’s not at all uncommon for people to downplay the traumatic nature of our current global pandemic. After all, the word “trauma” has historically been associated with violent experiences.
But you don’t have to experience violence to experience trauma.
“Generally, PTSD trauma is defined as being exposed to a traumatic event, such as a sexual assault, war, a car accident, or child abuse,” said Mindpath Health psychiatrist Julian Lagoy, MD. “However, the current COVID-19 pandemic has qualities that qualify as a traumatic experience as it takes a physical and emotional toll on many people.”
According to Dr. Lagoy, one of the key indicators of PTSD trauma is seeing the world as a dangerous place. And the current pandemic has caused that fear in a large portion of the population.
Recent research indicates healthcare workers are experiencing heightened levels of trauma because of COVID-19. While we don’t yet have data on the trauma people experience outside healthcare settings, anecdotal reports suggest children and adults are both experiencing mass trauma.
How common is this reaction?
Dr. Lagoy is quick to point out that because of the ongoing nature of the pandemic, we don’t currently have the data we need to know how many people are experiencing trauma right now.
“We do have data that kids with underlying mental health conditions or history of childhood abuse are more likely to develop PTSD trauma symptoms, which does increase the risk for suicide and intentional self-harm,” he said.
The same is true for adults, he explains.
The risks of untreated trauma
Dr. Lagoy says trauma isn’t a short-term concern, and that “the long-term consequences are numerous.” Some of the risks of unprocessed and untreated trauma can include:
- Decreased physical health
- Greater risk of substance use
- Higher risk of suicide or self-harm
Indeed, trauma has been found to have a lasting impact on those who experience it — which is why it’s so important to acknowledge and address those experiences.
How to recognize signs of trauma
The first step to addressing trauma and getting help for those who need it is to acknowledge the existence of that trauma.
Dr. Lagoy says adults need to pay attention to their own symptoms. He explains that some concerning signs of trauma among adults might include “an increase in disturbing thoughts, feelings, or nightmares related to the pandemic, such as dreams about forgetting to wear a mask.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), trauma can manifest in a long list of physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms, which include:
- Jaw clenching
- Memory problems
- Nausea and vomiting
- Poor concentration
How to treat symptoms of trauma and seek help
“The best treatment for untreated trauma is psychotherapy and counseling,” Dr. Lagoy said. “Medications are also valuable, but I would prefer psychotherapy and counseling first, especially for children.”
He also suggests limiting news intake, especially for children, as constant negative information isn’t good for their well-being.
How to prevent future trauma
Dr. Lagoy says it’s important to view the current pandemic through the lens of trauma. We may see the indications of trauma on the mental health of the general population on a global scale 5 to 10 years from now.
Now, more than ever, we need to be taking care of ourselves and our children. Because one day, the pandemic will end — and we all need to be healthy enough to move forward from there.
Read the full Healthline article with sources.