Skip to main content

Understanding Trauma and PTSD

Healthcare is a stressful profession under typical circumstances.  But the COVID-19 pandemic has added multiple layers of stress and trauma to each day. Healthcare workers are carrying the burden of system-wide unpreparedness, regularly witnessing traumatic events, and getting little time to properly take care of themselves. Without intervention, many are at high-risk for developing trauma-related disorders.

What is trauma?

Emotional and psychological trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event or situation that breaks your sense of security. Traumatic experiences often involve a direct threat to life or safety, but anything that leaves you feeling overwhelmed or isolated can result in trauma. While it’s common for most people to deal with fear and anxiety during and immediately after a traumatic event, everyone’s emotional response is unique. While some people will naturally recover with time, others may continue to experience trauma and stress-related symptoms:

Common Emotional Symptoms

Common Physical Symptoms


Dizziness, faintness, shakiness


Rapid breathing and/or heartrate


Racing thoughts


Changes in sleeping patterns


Physical pain (especially stomach and headaches)


Loss or increase in appetite


Increased substance use/dependence

Throughout the pandemic, many healthcare professionals have faced moral dilemmas related to the difficulties of providing high-quality care with limited equipment or staff. This emotional burden, combined with long hours, high pressure, and confronting human suffering regularly, is traumatic and increases the risk of individuals developing mental health challenges.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological disorder. It develops in response to a traumatic event. The body responds to trauma by releasing adrenaline, the stress hormone that triggers “fight or flight” mode. That adrenaline stimulates the amygdala, the part of the brain that plays a significant role in emotions, behavior, and fear processing. This system overreacts with out-of-proportion fear responses to ordinary situations[i]. While the symptoms of traumatic stress and PTSD look similar immediately following the event, they progress differently. With PTSD, your mind stays in a state of psychological shock – instead of feeling a bit better each day, your symptoms stick with you and interfere with your normal functioning.

There are three main types of symptoms[ii]:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive flashbacks and/or nightmares
  • Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that remind you of the trauma
  • Heightened arousal – trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy, irritability

For most people, symptoms will start immediately following a traumatic event, but some may not develop systems until weeks, months, or even years after. It’s important to be aware of the signs so that if you find yourself struggling later, you can get help. If you’re experiencing some of these symptoms now, take a PTSD screen.

How can I prevent trauma from turning into PTSD?

Experiencing a traumatic event isn’t a sure sign that you will develop PTSD. Everyone’s response to trauma will differ based on several factors, including pre-pandemic conditions and resources[iii]. Research on resiliency and recovery following trauma has identified protective factors that can lower your risk of long-term distress[iv]:

  • Social support is one of the primary influences in determining who will naturally recover from trauma and who will develop PTSD. Sharing your experience and feelings with people who you trust and/or people who have a similar story will likely help you feel less alone, weak, or like you’re too sensitive. 
  • Practice relaxation strategies to increase your ability to cope with negative feelings. You can try a number of different methods like muscle relaxation exercises, breathing exercises, meditation, stretching, prayer, going for a walk, or spending time in nature.
  • Ground yourself regularly, especially if you’re experiencing flashbacks or feeling disconnected. Grounding techniques help distance your mind from distressing thoughts or emotions and refocus on what is happening in the present moment. A common one is the 5-4-3-2-1 method – use your senses to notice your surroundings and name five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste. You can find more grounding strategies here.
  • Avoid negative coping – quick fixes that may make a situation worse in the long run. This includes things like substance abuse, sleeping your time away, and isolating yourself. Though they may feel like the most appealing options right now, they’ll likely cause more harm than good.
  • Consider therapy, even if only for the short-term. Processing your experience and emotions with a professional can help you develop healthy thought patterns and behaviors as you move forward. The sooner you face your traumatic stress, the easier it is to overcome. 

[i] Harvard Health Publishing. (2014, March). Not getting over it: Post-traumatic stress disorder.

[ii] Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Understand the facts: Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

[iii] Cohen Silver, R. (2020, July 3). Surviving the trauma of COVID-19. Science, 369(6499), pp. 11.

[iv] National Center for PTSD. Self-help and coping.