Coping With Pandemic PTSD: How To Heal After A Year Of COVID-19

Henry Ford Health System Staff Published in March and updated for PTSD Awareness Month June 2021

It has been a year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. It has been a year of loss, separation, anxiety and uncertainty. It has been a year of changes, in profound ways and in small ways. We have seen how our communities can come together, how we can help one another, and how selfless we can be during such hardship. But we’ve also seen how trying it has been on our mental health—and that’s okay to admit.

“Everyone responds to these experiences differently,” says Philip Lanzisera, Ph.D., a psychologist with Henry Ford Health System. “Being a frontline worker during the COVID-19 crisis, seeing loved ones pass away from COVID-19, having COVID-19 yourself—these are all traumatic experiences that could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.”

While many people experience symptoms similar to PTSD after a traumatic event, they usually heal on their own after a period of time. Those who have PTSD get stuck and aren’t able to move past their trauma.

“The brain takes over, you become anxious, and it’s terrifying,” says Dr. Lanzisera. “Your ability to think logically gets wiped out. If this is happening to you, it’s important to realize you are going through it and ask for help. The sooner you do something about it, the more likely it is that you can prevent it from getting worse.”

How do you know if you have PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD generally develop soon after experiencing a traumatic event, says Dr. Lanzisera, although sometimes they can take a few months to appear. They include:

  • Reliving the traumatic experience. “While you’re sleeping, you could have a nightmare related to the event,” says Dr. Lanzisera. “Or while you’re awake, memories could intrude upon your thoughts and make you feel like you’re reliving the experience. Unlike when someone is merely recalling a memory, with PTSD it doesn’t feel like a memory—it feels like you’re going through it again.” 
  • Experiencing event-triggered anxiety and avoidance. This occurs when you become easily anxious or upset by anything that reminds you of the event, and you go out of your way to avoid coming into contact with these reminders.
  • Becoming more upset and emotional than usual. This is called emotional dysregulation, says Dr. Lanzisera, and it occurs when you are unable to handle your response or emotions in a way you otherwise would be able to.

What are ways to cope with PTSD? Can it be cured?

“Cured is the wrong word to use,” says Dr. Lanzisera. “It can be treated very effectively.” The best treatment method is psychotherapy, he says, which is usually a combination of cognitive processing therapy and exposure therapy:

  • Cognitive processing therapy helps you identify beliefs you have surrounding that event and understand whether they are rooted in truth. “Memories of loss from COVID-19 are devastating and painful,” says Dr. Lanzisera. “But you have to remember these memories are not the events happening again. That’s the hard part about PTSD: you become as afraid of the anxiety as you are of the event happening again. You have to reorient yourself in reality. This is really hard to do, but that’s what your therapist and friends and family are there for—to support you and keep you focused on the present.”
  • Exposure therapy helps you confront your fears. “If, when the pandemic is over, you are afraid to be in a public place, you should face your fears gradually,” says Dr. Lanzisera. “Maybe you’d start by going to your neighborhood convenience store, and then work your way up to a busier place. Recognize you’ll be anxious. That’s natural. It doesn’t mean you’re in danger, it means your brain is trying to tell you that you are. You have to do it slowly, with a bit of guts and a bit of support.” 

Along with therapy, serotonin medications such as Prozac are also commonly used, adds Dr. Lanzisera, as they can help to reduce the overall sense of threat, making it easier to confront your fears.

What if you don’t have PTSD, but you’re having a difficult time dealing with events from the past year? 

Social support is key—doing activities that will help you get out and reengage with life (as CDC guidelines allow), says Dr. Lanzisera. Stay active. Go for walks, runs, safely connect with friends and family members. Confide in them.

“We have to find the joy in our present lives,” says Dr. Lanzisera. “We have to create things in our lives—right now—that are meaningful. We have to reach out to friends and find ways to be close to people. If you’re depressed or anxious and finding yourself not wanting to do anything, that’s when you have to make yourself do something.

Dr. Philip J. Lanzisera is a psychologist who specializes in treating patients with anxiety and depression, trauma-related disorders and pain-related disorders. He sees patients at Henry Ford locations in Detroit, Clinton Township and Troy.

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