How to Cope With Post-Traumatic Stress During COVID-19

Vicki Enns

post-traumatic stress, PTSD, mental health, mental illness, counselling, counsellor, COVID-19, Coronavirus, pandemic, self-care, trauma, traumatic

We are living in strange times, with unique challenges that many of us have never encountered before. Everywhere on the planet, people now have to collectively focus on survival, united in facing a shared threat: COVID-19.

Every one of us is equipped with instincts to help us rise to the challenge of survival, but these same instincts can also add to our experience of stress. People who already carry patterns of survival from past traumatic experiences may experience the impacts of this pandemic more intensely. Awareness and reminders of active, positive coping strategies are more important than ever for people in this situation.

Elements of this current situation that can set off a survival instinct include:

  • The virus’s threat to our physical health
  • The increased disconnection due to physical distancing
  • The helplessness we may feel amidst so much change and the unknown outcomes of the pandemic

Many people are all too familiar with surviving experiences that contain threats, disconnection, and helplessness. These are the central ingredients of any traumatic experience, and for those with post-traumatic stress symptoms or patterns, this pandemic may be provoking these patterns.

The patterns of flight, fight, and freeze are the foundation of post-traumatic stress symptoms. These are the ways our bodies help protect us when we feel threatened. For those with post-traumatic stress, these patterns often become woven into daily life, in the forms of avoidance (flight), anger or agitation (fight), and shutdown and withdrawal (freeze). Even if a person isn’t consciously remembering or thinking about any past events, our bodies hold these memories in the patterns of coping and reaction to new stressors that arise.

If anxiety and fear rise, triggering a traumatic survival response, a person may move into flight through increased urges to avoid and get away from the present situation; freeze through shutting down, feeling numb, or zoning out; or fight through increased irritability, aggression, and agitation.

Even though there is much about our current situation that we cannot control, we can shift our focus to what we do have influence and power over.

In a recent meta-review of studies examining the effects of quarantine on people in a variety of societal challenges over the last 15 years, it was found to be common for people to experience higher post-traumatic symptoms such as avoidance and anger.

Despite the potential negative effects of quarantine, there are positive steps people can take to cope under such circumstances. Keep in mind that these coping strategies are increasingly important for those who already struggle with post-traumatic stress.

1. Stay connected to the present.

Trauma survival patterns are rooted in our past experiences of survival. Current threatening situations can awaken these memories in our bodies and minds. Being intentional about keeping our awareness and attention on the present is key.

  • Spend time immersing yourself in the present throughout the day. Use your senses to bring your whole awareness into Listen to music, drink fragrant tea, meditate on your breath, pet your dog, or repot your plants, putting your fingers into the dirt and smelling the earthy soil.
  • Have trusted supports help you ground yourself in the here and now; have your friend describe their surroundings to you; spend time video chatting so you can see and hear other people.
  • Do tasks that have a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end.

2. Exercise choice.

A trauma response is heightened when we feel helpless and powerless. Even though there is much about our current situation that we cannot control, we can shift our focus to what we do have influence and power over.

  • Choose your routine. How do you spend your time and what do you focus on during the day?
  • Choose your information. Limit how much news you watch and when you take in new information.
  • Choose your distractions. Have a list of small, easy-to-do creative tasks that you can do. This may be sorting out a drawer, colouring, creating a collage, or cooking something you like.

3. Keep active and engaged with life.

Because of the intensity and ongoing nature of the current stresses, many people with post-traumatic stress may find themselves struggling to stay present and motivated. A crucial act of self-care is to intentionally stay moving, active, and engaged with life – this is a central antidote to the effect of fear that can immobilize our mind, body, and spirit.

  • Move often – literally. Stretch, dance, walk or jog on the spot, do yoga, garden, walk up and down the stairs, silly walk around your house – just keep moving!
  • Do something you enjoy every day. This can be simple like having your favourite coffee, or listening to a podcast to learn something new.
  • Engage with humour, joy, and curiosity to counter fear.
With awareness and active steps, we can exercise the positive power of being able to recognize our fear and patterns of survival.

4. Stay socially connected.

The empty streets in every city and town are reminding us of how much we need and crave connection. We may need to get creative and it is crucial we stay in connection with other people.

  • Have regular, short phone calls with friends, family, or other support systems.
  • Listen to live interviews or podcasts of people you find inspiring.
  • Spend time reminiscing and looking at pictures or videos of important relationships. If you are able, do this together with someone else on the other end of a phone call or video chat.

Our current situation is stressful and may cause fear and anxiety for some. With awareness and active steps, we can exercise the positive power of being able to recognize our fear and patterns of survival. With intention and openness to the support of those around us who are also going through this situation, we can get through this together.


For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author: Vicki Enns (MMFT, RMFT)
Clinical Director, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Vicki is the editor and co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights: Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. The book is available on our website.

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