It’s normal to experience traumatic stress following a disturbing event, whether it’s the coronavirus pandemic, a traffic accident, plane crash, violent crime, terrorist attack, or a natural disaster like an earthquake, hurricane, or flood. You may feel intense shock, confusion, fear, or feel numb or overwhelmed by a host of conflicting emotions, sometimes all at once.
Such emotions aren’t limited to the people who experienced the event. Round-the-clock news and social media coverage means that we’re all bombarded with horrific images of tragedy, suffering and loss almost the instant they occur anywhere in the world. Repeated exposure can overwhelm your nervous system and create traumatic stress just as if you had experienced the event first-hand.
For employees dealing with coronavirus on a daily basis they may experience a range of normal reactions to highly stressful situations.
Emotional symptoms of traumatic stress include:
- Shock and disbelief. You have a hard time accepting the reality of what has happened, or feel numb and disconnected from your feelings.
- Fear. You worry that the same thing will happen again, or that you’ll lose control or break down.
- Sadness or grief, especially if people you know have died or suffered life-altering consequences.
- Helplessness. The sudden, unpredictable nature of violent crime, accidents, pandemics, or natural disasters can leave you feeling vulnerable and helpless, and even trigger anxiety or depression.
- Guilt that you survived when others died or feeling that you could have done more to help.
- Anger. You may be angry at God, governments, or others you feel are responsible.
- Shame, especially over feelings or fears that you can’t control.
- Relief. You may feel relieved that the worst is over, that you weren’t as badly affected as others, or even hopeful that your life will return to normal.
Physical symptoms include:
- Feeling dizzy or faint, stomach tightening or churning, excessive sweating.
- Trembling, shaking, experiencing cold sweats, having a lump in your throat, or feeling choked up.
- Rapid breathing, pounding heart, even chest pains or difficulty breathing.
- Racing thoughts, being unable to rest or stop pacing. You may also have difficulty concentrating, memory problems, or confusion.
- Changes in your sleeping patterns. You experience insomnia or nightmares, for example.
- Unexplained aches and pains, including headaches, changes in sexual function.
- Loss or increase in appetite, or excessive consumption of alcohol, nicotine, or drugs.
The aim of the response to ongoing high stress is to support coping, to foster resilience, reduce burnout and reduce the risk of developing mental health difficulties including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There are specific things you can do to help yourself and your loved ones cope with the emotional aftermath of trauma and find a way to move on with your life.
- Remember there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to feel. People react in different ways to trauma, so don’t tell yourself (or anyone else) what you should be thinking, feeling, or doing.
- Don’t ignore your feelings—it will only slow recovery.It may seem better in the moment to avoid experiencing your emotions, but they exist whether you’re paying attention to them or not. Even intense feelings will pass if you simply allow yourself to feel what you feel.
- Avoid obsessively reliving the traumatic event. Repetitious thinking or viewing horrific images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system, making it harder to think clearly. Partake in activities that keep your mind occupied (read, watch a movie, cook, play with your kids), so you’re not dedicating all your energy and attention to the traumatic event.
- Re-establish routine. There is comfort in the familiar. After a disaster, getting back—as much as possible—to your normal routine, will help you minimize traumatic stress, anxiety, and hopelessness. Even if your work or school routine is disrupted, you can structure your day with regular times for eating, sleeping, spending time with family, and relaxing.
- Put major life decisions on hold. Making big life decisions about home, work, or family while traumatized will only increase the stress in your life. If possible, try to wait until life has settled down, you’ve regained your emotional balance, and you’re better able to think clearly.
If the stress is left unchecked, it can lead to burnout, a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. It’s important to remember that taking care of your own needs is not selfish, even at a time of crisis. Rather, it’s a necessity.