Further COVID Lockdowns Could Trigger PTSD Symptoms

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Key Takeways

  • The coronavirus pandemic has led to significant decreases in mental health around the country.
  • Lockdown and stay-at-home orders have the potential to trigger and exacerbate PTSD symptoms.

Due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols and lockdown measures, researchers continue to see a widespread decline in mental health. Whether or not people have been diagnosed with a mental health condition in the past, the ongoing crisis puts everyone at risk.

As the pandemic drags on into the new year, one such threat is post-traumatic stress disorder. For those already dealing with PTSD, the stress of the current situation can trigger symptoms, while the trauma of months-long isolation leads to new cases.

Multiple factors can put someone at higher risk of PTSD symptoms during this time. Along with a history of mental illness, psychotherapist Haley Neidich, LCSW, identified the following factors:

  • Biological
  • Psychological
  • Social support system

These are all important, as they each play pivotal roles in developing and potential treatment of mental health disorders like PTSD. Unfortunately, in many cases, the pandemic exacerbates these risks; “The reason this is so important is that people with existing mental health disorders are frequently isolated, both emotionally and physically, from people in their lives even before the lockdown, "says Neidich.

"When you remove even the possibility of leaving your home and interacting in person with other humans, the risk factors for worsening mental health issues are astounding,” says Neidich.

How the Pandemic Supercharges Stress

Considering most individuals have reported extreme changes in their lifestyles and mental health regardless of any previous diagnosis, it is clear that most mental health conditions have the potential to arise during this time. Many people have lost their income, been forced to remain at home, had the composition of their households and daily schedule altered, and face the general anxiety surrounding the presence of COVID-19.

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, integrative and pediatric mental health expert and author of Teletherapy Toolkit, says, “Whenever someone experiences long-term stress, there will always be a physical, cognitive, or emotional toll.

"Even someone with no trauma history can’t escape the damage that chronic stress has on the brain and body," says Capanna-Hodge. "Those with trauma, however, already have a nervous system that is more susceptible to stress and makes it harder to escape from stressful situations and social isolation.”

However, those already living with and navigating PTSD are in an especially difficult position if they are denied or limited in their ability to leave their homes. Neidich says, “Individuals who already have an active PTSD diagnosis will frequently already be living in a state of uncertainty and often report feeling unsafe, even in their own home.

"Isolation from those who can help keep people with PTSD grounded in the present moment will likely worsen their sense of dissociation and worsen depression symptoms specifically,” says Neidich.

Haley Neidich, LCSW

When you remove even the possibility of leaving your home and interacting in person with other humans, the risk factors for worsening mental health issues are astoundng.

— Haley Neidich, LCSW

Isolation and Loneliness as Factors

Loneliness is a major factor in the worsening stability of individuals during this time, and research has shown that support systems make a significant difference in individual mental health deterioration.

“The longer the isolation occurs, the higher someone's risk is for developing more severe mental illness. We are also beginning to see individuals who meet the clinical criteria for PTSD due to ongoing isolation without any prior history," says Neidich.

"Humans are not meant to live in solitude long term, and this lack of support and human connection is frequently traumatic, particularly when compounded with the fear of being a human being in a world with a global pandemic.” says Neidich.

Current Trauma

Another serious consideration for many working within anti-violence agencies has been the individuals dealing with traumatic situations within the home. While some have PTSD due to prior instances of trauma, many are dealing with active traumatic situations without the ability to escape or actively cope.

Many domestic and sexual violence organizations have reported significant increases in the demand for their services since early spring when COVID-19 lockdowns began. In addition, since children are no longer going to school daily, being forced to remain home has resulted in an extreme concern for youth as well, especially because teachers report a large portion of familial abuse cases.

In addition to possible confinement with potential abusers, negative coping strategies may also play a role in deteriorating mental health. Alcohol sales have risen substantially across the globe during this time—14% within the US—resulting in heightened binge drinking and potential alcohol abuse.

For those who may suffer from trauma around substance or alcohol abuse, the stress of the pandemic can lead to negative coping mechanisms or put them on the receiving end of increased alcohol-fueled abuse.

Effects of PTSD

Because we know that stress, especially in prolonged circumstances, can have lasting effects on an individual’s mental and physical health, this is an ongoing concern for researchers and mental health professionals.

According to Cappana-Hodge, “Extended periods of stress and isolation are especially hard for someone with a history of trauma whose body may simply be more activated by environmental stressors and collective sadness and stress that the world is experiencing." She adds that such trauma can even present as physical symptoms like pain, headaches, or stomach problems.

How Can You Stay Safe and Centered?

Capanna-Hodge suggests that if it is possible, making time for yourself is an important step in managing your symptoms. “Taking time every single day to regulate your breath, connect to your body, and regulate your nervous system is something that everyone can do, and it only takes ten minutes,” she says.

According to the four steps of her REPS Protocol™, even through lockdown orders, anxiety, panic, distress, or other uncomfortable emotions can be addressed:

  • Respirate: When you’re stressed or anxious, your breathing can get irregular, and shallow breath affects our nervous system. Deep breathing is an easy and effective way to feel calm quickly.
  • Envision: Visualization is a powerful way to not only get clarity on your goals but to help manifest them.
  • Positivity: In your thinking and words.
  • Stress management: Calming the nervous system literally allows you to think. When your stress is at maximum capacity, your frontal lobes go offline, and it is almost impossible to have rational thought, let alone react rationally.

What This Means For You

COVID-19, stay-at-home orders, and quarantines are difficult on everyone, regardless of their past or previous trauma or mental wellness. If you find yourself struggling during this time, know that you are not alone in your need for extra support.

If leaving your house is not an option, many mental health professionals are presently offering virtual sessions, allowing for increased flexibility for their clients. Additionally, if you are in an unsafe situation and unable to leave, there are options for assistance. Finally, if you can, build a network of support that is available to meet in whatever way you all decide is safest for everyone.

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.

2 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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  2. Pollard MS, Tucker JS, Green HD. Changes in adult alcohol use and consequences during the COVID-19 pandemic in the USJAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(9):e2022942. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.22942