- Enduring emotional distress and fear, such as that created by COVID-19, can cause trauma in children and adults.
- Symptoms of trauma can manifest differently in children than in adults.
- Trauma can carry long-term effects if left untreated, meaning the impact of COVID-19 could remain long after the pandemic is under control.
The danger and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic has upended “normal” life for more than 6 months now, causing billions of people around the world to experience unexpected emotional turmoil.
Though many may not realize it, that emotional turmoil can, and is, causing symptoms of trauma to manifest in both children and adults.
It can also have serious mental and physical health effects if it’s not treated.
Understanding the definition of trauma
It’s not at all uncommon for people to downplay the traumatic nature of our current global pandemic. After all, the word “trauma” has historically been associated with violent experiences.
But you don’t have to experience violence to experience trauma.
“Generally, PTSD trauma is defined as being exposed to a traumatic event, such as a sexual assault, war, a car accident, or child abuse,” psychiatrist Dr. Julian Lagoy told Healthline. “However, the current COVID-19 pandemic has qualities that qualify as a traumatic experience as it takes a physical and emotional toll on many people.”
According to Lagoy, one of the key indicators of PTSD trauma is seeing the world as a dangerous place. And the current pandemic has caused that fear in a large portion of the population.
“Some people during this pandemic feel more on guard or unsafe, have an increase in negative thoughts and feelings, and have problems with sleep and concentration — also symptoms of PTSD trauma,” Lagoy said.
Recent research indicates healthcare workers are experiencing heightened levels of trauma because of COVID-19.
And while we don’t yet have data on the trauma people experience outside healthcare settings, anecdotal reports suggest children and adults are both experiencing mass trauma.
Katie Lear, LCMHC, is a licensed children’s therapist who specializes in childhood trauma and anxiety.
“Any time a child feels extremely unsafe, out of control, or at risk of serious injury, illness, or death, the experience may be traumatic for them,” Lear told Healthline.
“Interestingly, children who witness a parent’s life threatening or dangerous experience are just as deeply impacted as if it had happened to them directly,” she said.
The pandemic, she explains, has left many of us, including children, feeling completely out of control.
And the loss of routine, the disruption to school and family gatherings, the inability to interact with our loved ones as we once did — all of this isn’t only disorienting to children, it can even be dangerous.
How common is this reaction?
Lagoy is quick to point out that because of the ongoing nature of the pandemic, we don’t currently have the data we need to know how many people are experiencing trauma right now.
“We do have data that kids with underlying mental health conditions or history of childhood abuse are more likely to develop PTSD trauma symptoms, which does increase risk for suicide and intentional self-harm,” he said.
The same is true for adults, he explains.
Lear says about a third of the children she works with seem to be experiencing this event as a trauma.
“Children who are watching the news a lot seem to show more symptoms, possibly due to the repeated exposure to possibly traumatic material on TV or online,” she explained.
As for adults, Lear says she’d guess more are experiencing the pandemic as a traumatic event as a result of their increased capacity to understand death and the possible risks associated with COVID-19.
“Even if an adult has not been personally affected by the pandemic, it’s possible to develop vicarious trauma simply from repeatedly watching others suffer,” Lear said.
The risks of untreated trauma
Lagoy says trauma isn’t a short-term concern, and that “the long-term consequences are numerous.”
According to Lagoy, some of the risks of unprocessed and untreated trauma can include:
- decreased physical health
- higher risk of suicide or self-harm
- greater risk of substance use
“There have even been studies which have shown physical changes in the brain (increased amygdala size) of people suffering from PTSD and untreated trauma,” Lagoy said.
Indeed, trauma has been found to have a lasting impact on those who experience it — which is why it’s so important to acknowledge and address those experiences.
“Children and adults who have been traumatized by the pandemic may struggle with flashbacks, depressed mood, and irritability,” Lear explained. “If a person doesn’t work through their trauma experience, these symptoms can become debilitating.”
How to recognize signs of trauma
The first step to addressing trauma and getting help for those who need it is to acknowledge the existence of that trauma.
With young kids, Lear says parents should look for signs of regression — things like suddenly bedwetting or throwing tantrums again even though those behaviors had previously ended.
“Sleep disturbances, such as recurrent nightmares, whether they are virus-related or not, can be another indicator, especially when they occur alongside other symptoms,” Lear explained.
With older children, she says parents should look out for their kids describing feelings of numbness or hopelessness, or expressing less optimism about their future goals and plans as a result of COVID-19.
Lagoy says adults need to pay attention to their own symptoms as well. He explains that some concerning signs of trauma among adults might include “an increase in disturbing thoughts, feelings, or nightmares related to the pandemic, such as dreams about forgetting to wear a mask.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), trauma can manifest in a long list of physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms, which include (but aren’t limited to):
- nausea and vomiting
- jaw clenching
- poor concentration
- memory problems
How to treat symptoms of trauma and seek help
“The best treatment for untreated trauma is psychotherapy and counseling,” Lagoy said. “Medications are also valuable, but I would prefer psychotherapy and counseling first, especially for children.”
He further suggests limiting news intake, especially for children, as constant negative information isn’t good for their well-being.
Beyond that, Lear says parents need to prioritize talking to their children right now.
“Giving children age-appropriate information about the pandemic is really important, because it dispels misconceptions children may have that lead to even more distress,” Lear explained.
He adds that children need to know what the virus can and can’t do, how it is and isn’t transmitted, and what efforts are being made to end the pandemic.
“Teaching children relaxation strategies, like progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing, can help children to self-soothe and get out of the chronic fight-or-flight mode that can lead to traumatic stress,” Lear said.
How to prevent future trauma during the pandemic
Lagoy says it’s important to view the current pandemic through the lens of trauma.
“We need to be educated about the symptoms of trauma and to treat it as soon as possible so it does not lead to worse consequences,” he explained.
He adds that we may see the indications of trauma on the mental health of the general population on a global scale 5 to 10 years from now.
That’s why both Lear and Lagoy encourage people to seek help right away if they believe they (or their children) are experiencing trauma.
“If you’re in an area where it’s not safe or possible to see a therapist in person right now, many therapists have shifted to practicing online,” Lear said. “Look for a therapist who specializes in trauma, and who uses an evidence-based form of therapy designed especially to help trauma survivors.”
Now, more than ever, we need to be taking care of ourselves and our children.
Because one day, the pandemic will end — and we all need to be healthy enough to move forward from there.