Why Individuals With COVID-19 May Be at Risk for PTSD

Key Takeaways

  • Studies have observed symptoms of PTSD in people who were quarantined with COVID-19.
  • Social isolation appears to be a leading factor.
  • Children might be at a higher risk for PTSD whether or not they were infected with COVID-19.

Long after someone has healed physically from COVID-19, they may still very well have some emotional wounds to address. After all, being diagnosed with COVID-19 can take a serious toll on an individual’s psychological well-being.

The fear of dying, the social isolation experienced by those who are sick, and the anxiety related to the thought of getting sick again are just a few reasons why someone may experience a decline in mental health after contracting the coronavirus.

Although it is too soon to understand the long-term psychological impact on individuals who test positive for COVID-19, there is some data that indicates that they may be at a higher risk for mental health issues, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Connection With PTSD

Individuals may develop PTSD following a traumatic event (such as a natural disaster, a serious car accident, or a violent personal assault). Symptoms may include:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the event
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Feelings of detachment or estrangement
  • Avoidance of anything that stirs up memories of the traumatic event

Research on COVID-19 Survivors and PTSD

Individuals who survive a life-threatening illness (such as COVID-19) may be at a high risk of developing PTSD. Whether they were near death, or they were isolated from all human contact (other than a few healthcare workers), the distress from the experience may lead to PTSD in some individuals.

Researchers in China have released some early research on what they have discovered so far. The researchers requested that patients who were discharged from quarantine facilities (temporary hospitals built to hold, quarantine, and treat people who tested positive) complete questionnaires about their psychological well-being.

They administered the PTSD checklist to 714 people and found that a staggering 96.2% of participants experienced symptoms of PTSD. They also found that these individuals experienced symptoms prior to being released from quarantine.

Some of the conditions and factors they experienced that may have affected their mental health included:

  • Social isolation
  • Perceived danger
  • Uncertainty
  • Physical discomfort
  • Medication side effects
  • Fear of transmitting the virus to others
  • Negative news stories about the pandemic

These factors caused most individuals to experience emotional disturbances including:

  • Loneliness
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia

There has not been any research published about individuals who have had the virus but were not hospitalized, but it is quite possible that even individuals who were quarantined in their own homes (or those who were fairly asymptomatic) may still be at a higher risk for PTSD.

PTSD and Other Pandemics

It’s not surprising that individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 are at risk of developing PTSD. Research from other pandemics has revealed similar results.

Studies on individuals who were diagnosed with SARS revealed that survivors were more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Individuals who tested positive for SARS were quarantined (just like in the case of COVID-19). And social isolation seemed to be a major factor in their mental health symptoms.

A 2004 study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases examined the psychological effects of individuals who were quarantined in Toronto, Canada, during the SARS outbreak. Researchers discovered that 29% of individuals exhibited PTSD and that 31% exhibited symptoms of depression.

Longer durations of quarantine were associated with an increased prevalence of PTSD symptoms. Individuals who were exposed to someone who had been diagnosed with SARS were also at a higher risk for depression and PTSD.

Studies show that children may also be at a higher risk of PTSD during and after a pandemic. A 2013 study examined the impact quarantine had on the mental health of children and their parents. Researchers discovered that the criteria for PTSD were met in 30% of isolated or quarantined children and about 25% of the parents.

The good news is that many of them experienced relief from their symptoms soon after they recovered. A 2005 study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases found “a significant decrease in symptom severity from one month to three months after discharge.”

PTSD Treatment

Fortunately, PTSD is treatable. Primary treatment usually involves psychotherapy. Therapy can help people make sense of their experience and gain better control over their symptoms.

There are several types of therapy that may be effective in treating individuals with PTSD related to COVID-19:

  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy helps individuals face the situations and memories that they find disturbing—and therefore try to avoid. It can be particularly effective for individuals who experience flashbacks and nightmares. Some therapists use virtual reality programs to allow patients to safely re-enter the environment in which they experienced the trauma.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR combines exposure therapy with guided eye movements to help individuals process traumatic memories and change their reactions to them.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps individuals recognize and replace thoughts and behaviors that keep them stuck. It may be used in conjunction with exposure therapy.

In some cases, medication may also be used in conjunction with talk therapy. There is not a specific medication that resolves PTSD, but there are medications that can curb some of the symptoms.

Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are commonly prescribed to individuals with PTSD. Prazosin may also be prescribed to reduce nightmares.

Many therapists and psychiatrists offer online treatment. So individuals who are at risk of developing PTSD (or those who think they may have symptoms) don’t have to wait until social distancing regulations are relaxed. It is possible to receive talk therapy or get a prescription from an online provider.

What This Means For You

Not everyone who has COVID-19 or has a loved one with the virus will develop PTSD. Those who do develop it are not necessarily weak or flawed; there are many factors that influence whether someone develops the condition.

If you had COVID-19 and you have struggled with the stress it has caused, do not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. The sooner you seek treatment, the sooner you can work on finding relief from your symptoms and improving your psychological well-being.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.