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People develop trauma-like symptoms as pandemic drags on: NPR


Experts debate whether the term “trauma” applies to the pandemic, but it’s clear that a mental health crisis is looming.

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Kim Ryu for NPR

People develop trauma-like symptoms as pandemic drags on: NPR

Experts debate whether the term “trauma” applies to the pandemic, but it’s clear that a mental health crisis is looming.

Kim Ryu for NPR

In February 2020, Jullie Hoggan picked up the phone to receive vital news.

She had been on the list for a kidney transplant and, to her relief, there was finally a donor. But that assurance was quickly eclipsed by the looming threat of the novel coronavirus.

“I remember standing in front of my sink and thinking, what about this virus? Like, is this going to be a problem?” she says.

It was a question that would completely reshape the next two years of his life.

Although the operation was successful and Hoggan is now vaccinated and strengthened, she is still severely immunocompromised and must take significant safety precautions.

“I’m so nervous. For example, my heartbeat explodes when I’m out for anything,” she said. “And I wonder if I’ll ever be able to go out safely and be normal and go to a store. Am I going to feel like this forever?”

Hoggan works from home, rarely leaves the house, and when she does, it’s incredibly stressful. Her husband and college-aged daughter both wear masks at home and have to be extremely careful of who they see and what they are doing.

Hoggan’s pandemic experience features no violence and there were no explosions or assaults, which is why she struggles to call it trauma.

But Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association (APA), says seeing the world as dangerous can be a symptom of trauma.

“I think for a lot of people the idea of ​​having a mental health issue is that there’s something wrong with me,” he said. “And I think the idea of ​​trauma helps people understand that, no, it’s something that happens to me and the way I react is a natural response.”

People develop trauma-like symptoms as pandemic drags on: NPR

At least one expert says there’s a kind of collective trauma to living through the pandemic.

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Victor J. Blue/Getty Images

People develop trauma-like symptoms as pandemic drags on: NPR

At least one expert says there’s a kind of collective trauma to living through the pandemic.

Victor J. Blue/Getty Images

Generally speaking, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. Usually an event that threatens your life, or the life of someone close to you, and results in significant feelings of fear or helplessness.

It’s a sentiment not unique to Hoggan.

For Lanny Langstrom, the first few months of the pandemic were filled with stress.

“I was desperately trying to stay away from this thing that I thought was going to kill me at any moment,” he said.

He remembers worrying that if he died of COVID his 6-year-old daughter might not remember him. He was so stressed that he finally called a mental health hotline, and they suggested he go to therapy, which he had never done before.

To her surprise, her therapist told her that her symptoms were consistent with trauma.

“When I think of trauma, I kind of imagine one of these brave young men going to Afghanistan and driving a Humvee and blowing up,” Langstrom said. “I’m not a soldier, but you know, at this point we lived [nearly 1 million] people dying.”

What Langstrom is describing is collective trauma, according to Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California, Irvine.

“The event happens, there’s a great tragedy, and people are picking up the pieces of their lives and starting to figure out how they’re going to move on,” she said.

But Cohen Silver said the pandemic was different. For one thing, there wasn’t a single event – it was more of a “slow disaster” that “increased in intensity over time” but has no clear beginning or end. .

And that makes it harder to categorize, or even recognize.

Is it a trauma?

These feelings of anxiety and stress are becoming more common in the pandemic, Evans said.

“We are absolutely living through a mental health tsunami,” he said. “And we expect it to grow even more…so we haven’t even gotten over that tsunami yet.”

An APA survey found a significant increase in demand for mental health treatments in 2021. Providers are stretched, waiting lists are growing and people are looking for a myriad of issues, Evans said, but the anxiety, depression and other trauma-related disorders were at the top.

But the rise in demand for mental health treatment was not necessarily a rise in pandemic-related trauma, said psychiatrist and neurologist Dr Bessel van der Kolk. He has spent his career trying to understand how people adapt to trauma.

His 2014 book, The body keeps the score, explores how the brain, mind and body process trauma. Eight years after its first publication, the book ended up on The New York Times bestseller list for months, and it was one of the best-selling books on Amazon during the pandemic.

People develop trauma-like symptoms as pandemic drags on: NPR

Masks have become a ubiquitous sign of the pandemic and the changes people have faced.

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People develop trauma-like symptoms as pandemic drags on: NPR

Masks have become a ubiquitous sign of the pandemic and the changes people have faced.

STR/AFP via Getty Images

Van der Kolk isn’t sure what to make of the book’s newfound popularity.

“I’m amazed,” he said. “It’s a very difficult book to read.”

But he has some words for this moment. It’s “painful” and it’s a “permanent stress”, but he hesitates to qualify this pandemic as a collective trauma.

“We have to be very specific,” he said. “Because if we don’t know what we’re treating, we can give the wrong treatment.”

Instead, he said this moment required a new term, a new language to fully encompass the scope of these circumstances.

“That’s really what I encourage us to do — to really identify what makes us all feel like we’re barely hanging on,” he said.

Warning signs and symptoms

Trauma typically presents months, sometimes years after an event, says Tamar Rodney, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

She is already seeing small-scale symptoms in some of her patients, although they are not “clinically significant”. But she said that even though the pandemic has subsided, there was still a risk of trauma-related effects.

“We have to pay attention to the warning signs, like irritability, trouble sleeping, drinking more than usual, fatigue, loss of joy,” she said.

In other words, treat the symptoms as they arise.

People develop trauma-like symptoms as pandemic drags on: NPR

The immediate danger of the pandemic may pass, but the emotional toll could still linger for a long time.

Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images


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Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

People develop trauma-like symptoms as pandemic drags on: NPR

The immediate danger of the pandemic may pass, but the emotional toll could still linger for a long time.

Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

“We don’t need to get to full-blown anxiety, depression, or PTSD before we deal with it,” she said.

Evans agrees, especially because right now there just isn’t enough treatment for everyone.

“We can’t get out of this,” he said. “The scale of the problem is too great.”

But there is a silver lining.

“People are paying more attention to mental health,” Evans said. And he hopes that this greater awareness of mental health issues will translate into more resources and investment.

The audio for this story was produced and reported by Kat Lonsdorf. Ayen Deng Bior adapted it for the web.

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