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PTSD Linked to Pandemic Panic

PTSD Linked to Pandemic Panic

Global study measures responses from 1,040 people, finding that more than 13 percent had PTSD-related symptoms

Flinders University

Even at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, people around the world became more fearful of what could happen to them or their family.

A new Flinders University study of 1,040 online participants from five western countries published in PLOS ONE explores people's response to the stresses of the escalating pandemic, finding more than 13 percent of the sample had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related symptoms consistent with levels necessary to qualify for a clinical diagnosis.

With ongoing economic and social fallout, and death toll of more than 2 million, the team of psychology researchers warn more needs to be done to cope with the potential short and long-term spike in PTSD cases resulting from the pandemic—as well as related mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, psychosocial functioning, etc.

"While the global pandemic does not fit into prevailing PTSD models, or diagnostic criteria, our research shows this ongoing global stressor can trigger traumatic stress symptoms," says lead researcher and associate professor Melanie Takarangi, from Flinders Psychology.

"We found that traumatic stress was related to future events, such as worry about oneself or a family member contracting COVID-19, to direct contact with the virus, as well as indirect contact such as via the news and government lockdown—a non-life threatening event," says co-author Victoria Bridgland, who is undertaking a PhD studying the triggers of PTSD.


Related Article: Pandemic Burnout: How to Cope


PTSD is a set of reactions, including intrusive recollections such as flashbacks, that can develop in people exposed to an event that threatened their life or safety (e.g., sexual assault, natural disaster).

"Our findings highlight the need to focus on the acute psychological distress—including the perceived emotional impact of particular events—associated with COVID-19 and build on other research from the past year that demonstrates the damaging psychological impact of COVID-19 on mental health," says Bridgland.

Comprehensive long-term documentation of COVID-19 related traumatic stress reactions will allow health professionals to help people who could otherwise fall through the cracks, the research team concludes.

The online survey examined a range of responses to common post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as repeated disturbing and unwanted images, memories, or thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19's psychological fallout has been dubbed the "second curve," predicted to last for months to years, the paper notes.

"Notably, while most of our participants reported experiencing some form of psychological distress and 13.2 percent of our sample were likely PTSD positive when anchoring symptoms to COVID-19, only two percent of our total sample reported they had personally tested positive to COVID-19, and only five percent reported that close family and friends had tested positive.

"It therefore seems likely that the psychological fallout from COVID-19 may reach further than the medical fallout," the paper concludes.

- This press release was supplied by Flinders University. It has been edited for style