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Managing and understanding PTSD in the context of COVID-19

Dr Radu Iosub, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Bristol, has provided information and advice for people who may be experiencing psychological trauma in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and illness.

He talks through the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), when symptoms may start to become apparent, and provides information and advice on the treatment and support that is available for anyone who may be dealing with psychological trauma at this time.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve started to see an increasing number of people presenting with psychological symptoms directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Psychological trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic and illness is having an effect on a large number of people. Many are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, or are struggling with substance misuse difficulties. Others are struggling with symptoms of grief or PTSD. Many of these are people who have closely experienced the COVID-19 illness, including people who have contracted the virus and become unwell themselves, or those who have very sadly lost loved ones. Our colleagues in front-line services are also faced with the trauma of losing patients under their care.

Understanding PTSD related to COVID-19

When do symptoms of PTSD appear?

Typically, symptoms of PTSD begin with some delay from the traumatic incident. In some cases, it can be weeks and in other cases, it can be months later.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Many people will experience a profound sense of anxiety and a feeling of being constantly in danger (hypervigilance). They are also likely to re-experience the trauma, through flashbacks or nightmares. It is also very common for people with trauma-related symptoms to have sleeping difficulties such as insomnia as well as symptoms of generalised anxiety and depression.

What treatment is available for PTSD?

There is a need for long term psychiatric and psychological treatments for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and illness.

If you are beginning to struggle with symptoms of PTSD, it is important to come forward and seek help. The first step in accessing help is to have a psychiatric assessment. This would confirm the diagnosis or in other cases, reassuringly rule out the diagnosis.

If a diagnosis is confirmed, then there are a number of treatments available. There are different types of medication that can be prescribed. Typically, the prescription of this medication is initiated and monitored initially by a psychiatrist.

There are also specific psychological interventions that can be offered such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

How can we boost our emotional resilience during COVID 19?

There are a number of things that we can all do to help boost our emotional resilience at this time. These are simple things like making sure that we sleep well, have a varied and healthy diet, exercise regularly and importantly, that we connect with family and friends.

We continue to live in very challenging times and while we may need to remain physically distant from one another, it is really crucial that we stay socially united.

Blog reviewed by Dr Radu Iosub (MBBS, MRCPsych, CCT in General Adult and Addiction Psychiatry), Visiting Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Bristol.

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