Op-Ed: The “War" On COVID-19 Is Affecting People With Pre-Existing PTSD

This veteran has some advice on how to avoid developing PTSD or mitigate the effect the pandemic has on you.

Getty Images

As world leaders continue to compare the coronavirus pandemic to a "war," people living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are sitting at home; we’re twiddling our thumbs, worrying—sometimes obsessively—about what might happen next. By the time this pandemic is over, I’m afraid there might be even more of us.

PTSD is a mental health condition that some people develop after exposure to a traumatic experience. You’ve probably heard of it affecting war veterans, but it’s a condition that affects millions of people around the world who’ve been in scary situations like a car crash, faced abuse, or simply lived through an incredibly stressful experience.

People with PTSD have disturbing thoughts and feelings related to a traumatic experience that last long after the experience has ended. Symptoms include anxiety, depression, and a persistent feeling that one is reliving the traumatic event. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD affects approximately 3.5% of adults in the United States, and women are twice as likely to develop the condition than men.

Right now, some people living with PTSD are having flare ups because this situation brings back memories for them. From the fear that something might happen to them to the extreme isolation and the constant numbers of people who’ve died from COVID-19 being thrust at them — all of this can have a detrimental effect on anyone. But for someone living with PTSD, those feelings are amplified. Their isolation can literally become a matter of life or death.

I’ve personally been living with PTSD since 2006 when I was medically discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps after a tour in Abu Ghraib, Iraq in 2004-05. I found myself unable to function. I was in and out of mental health facilities for years before I found myself again and started taking steps (with the help of extensive counseling) to get my life back. 

While much of my problem came from things I’d witnessed and done myself, a great portion of it came from simply not knowing what was going to happen next. In combat zones, there are times of extreme adrenaline and times of extreme boredom. During those stretches of extreme boredom, you’re given time to think about what might happen to you. This down time — and the intrusive thoughts — was, to me, the hardest part to cope with, the literal mindfuck of not knowing whether you’d be alive or dead the next day. 

The "unknown" part of this pandemic has been the hardest for me. My biggest fear in this world before the pandemic was other people. This crisis has magnified that fear, because you don’t know who does and doesn’t have the virus.

“Was that guy who got too close to me at the grocery store infected? Am I infected now? Oh man, what’s that tickle in my throat? Am I getting the coronavirus? I better take my temperature. Is 98.8 a fever? I think I might be sick…”

COVID-19 is deadly. Period. Data has shown that most people who contract the virus recover, but tens of thousands have become deathly ill. You turn on the news and see stories of people dying in hospitals alone — their families completely grief-stricken and unable to find closure — because they can’t see their deceased loved ones. Many people can’t even attend their loved one’s funeral. 

These fringe effects of the pandemic will likely cause someone to develop PTSD. But what about people who haven’t been directly affected by the virus?

When we get back to "normal," we can pretty much count on it not being what normal used to be. When this war is over, we will see how it’s impacted people who are trying to get back to their lives but find it incredibly hard, because they might be experiencing a permeating fear of the unknown. The fear of the unknown is the most disturbing part, and it’s more than likely going to persist for a long time. 

In my case, the PTSD didn’t fully surface until about five months after I returned from Iraq. This seems to be the case for many veterans living with PTSD, and it’s because the normal we’ve returned to is no longer normal for us. After six to 12 months or more of being deployed to a place where you could die at any moment, the relative peace and quiet of the U.S. no longer feels normal. In fact, the silence, for some of us, became deafening and caused us to lose grasp of who we were.

That’s my fear for people living through this right now — that the new normal won’t be what they’re used to.When they’re thrust back into their old life, outside of the relative safety of their homes, it won’t be what they remembered before this happened. The fear that exists right now won’t just suddenly go away. It’s going to exist for years to come, and it’s going to drastically affect people who’ve never lived through something like this. 

PTSD doesn’t have to rule your life after this. There are some actions you can take now to avoid developing PTSD or mitigate the effect the pandemic has on you.
 My suggestion is to process your emotions!
Talk to family members and friends about how you’re feeling. Explore those emotions and try to understand them. This will help you to not get bogged down in the negative emotions that come with isolation and fear. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to people in your life, there are telemedicine options that will allow you to talk to a licensed therapist, if you are fortunate to have the means. 

One thing I’ve learned through extensive therapy is that you have to feel your emotions in order to heal yourself. Remember the movie "Frozen"? Elsa, who, in my opinion, clearly lived with PTSD from hurting people with her magic, said "conceal, don’t feel." Concealing the feelings and isolating herself was counterproductive for her, and I promise it’ll be counterproductive for you.

We are all in this together. In times like these, it’s more important than ever to be compassionate with one another.