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When You're So Not Over the Pandemic

Strategies for coping with Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience (PTSE).

Key points

  • Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience (PTSE) presents people with difficulty thinking, confusion, apathy, and a preoccupation with safety.
  • Ambiguity and mixed messages from public health experts add to the overall confusion and uncertainty about what the future holds for us.
  • Becoming aware of ideas and feelings and recognizing some control over them can diminish emotional discomfort.
Photo by Boris Jovanovic from Getty via Canva
Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience affects many of us.
Source: Photo by Boris Jovanovic from Getty via Canva

by Brenda Bauer, Psy.D.

edited by Jack Drescher, M.D.

You’re likely familiar with PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a serious mental health condition people experienced in the aftermath of major trauma.

Have You Heard of PTSE?

Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience (PTSE), while not presently listed as a formal diagnosis, is an emerging state of mind that appears to affect a great many people. It can include:

  1. Difficulty thinking in general, including a loss of focus and attention, on both specific tasks and general goals, and increased mental errors amid the grinding general weariness of pandemic conditions,
  2. Confusion around the passage of time (minutes, hours, days, weeks) and fuzziness about seasonality (is it spring, summer, fall, or winter?),
  3. Apathy about things that you typically care about.
  4. Preoccupation with contracting, or spreading, new Covid variants, or a total lack of concern with your safety and others’ from new variants.

“Heard of PTSE? I’m living it!” said Alex, a video producer in Boston I recently met. While not a patient, she sounds like many of my psychotherapy patients saying things like:

“I just can’t seem to focus.”

“What month is this? July? Really?”

"I really don’t care.”

Alex continues...

It’s been so frustrating for me to edit video content while trying to keep track of the story. I keep losing the thread! And don’t get me started on story timelines! I can’t even remember what day it is. And you know what? I often don’t care. I feel so apathetic!

Are You Feeling the Effects of PTSE?

Are you confused? Is your mind blurry? Is it spring or summer? Did you feed the cat today, or was that yesterday?

  • Trouble focusing? You used to be goal-oriented. Not anymore. You have several tasks open but can’t seem to finish any one of them. Pandemic conditions have taken the wind out of your sail.
  • Making mistakes? No more “one and done”? Are mental errors now the norm?
  • Do you feel a sense of grinding weariness? You don’t feel depressed, exactly, but do feel “blah” and stuck in the day in, day out grind.
  • When you turn on Netflix, are you unmoved by and disengaged with a series that once thrilled you?
  • Are you apathetic? Do you look in the refrigerator and feel indifferent about what to eat?
  • Are you overly preoccupied with contracting the new variants even if you’re fully vaccinated? Could you care less about your safety, and that of others, about getting infected with Covid?

Is Covid Over? No.

Alex worried, “The CDC and WHO guidance keeps shifting and changing about masking and immunity, and hotspots keep popping up here and abroad. I mean, are we safe or not?!”

Alex's worry is justifiable. Ambiguity and mixed messages from public health experts only add to the overall confusion and uncertainty about what the future holds for each of us. Some people have ditched their masks and are celebrating “the end of Covid,” while others continue to mask and distance and wipe down surfaces. It’s unclear what we should be doing and how much anxiety we should be feeling.

In fact, the Covid experience has uniquely affected each of us. While many struggled at certain times during the pandemic, others responded with resilience, altruism, and creativity, building strong relationships and communities. The accumulating stress and strain that chronic pandemic conditions have imposed affected all of us at some point, and the sheer length of the pandemic has messed with our sense of what is normal.

This Is PTSE.

Whether you call it “languishing” or PTSE, putting a name to what you are feeling is more than half the battle. However, it is essential to understand that PTSE is a shared community phenomenon, one that centers on adaptation to our present pandemic circumstances. In short, you are not alone.

“Yes, Alex, you do have PTSE!” I said. “And would you believe that I do, too?” Alex looked at me, a bit relieved to be validated and happy to at least have a name for it.

If you believe you have PTSE, these strategies may help:

  • Naming what you are going through will give you some sense of relief that this is a valid experience,
  • Understanding that everyone is struggling in their own unique ways has a normalizing effect on each of us,
  • Plugging into the community, even if only a community of one or two others, is protective of your mental health, both in the here and now and in the long run. Don’t isolate yourself.
  • Sharing your experience with others helps both you and someone else, and
  • Recognizing that while the pandemic has lasted a very long time, each phase of it has been transitory and temporary to keep a future perspective.

An important lesson from psychoanalysis is that feelings often operate outside your awareness but affect you nonetheless. However, once you become aware of the ideas and feelings you are having, simply recognizing that you have some control over them can diminish emotional discomfort. If the impact of the pandemic on you is severe or persistent, and reaching out to friends and family isn’t enough, consider consulting a psychotherapist or psychoanalyst for help.

Brenda Bauer is a psychoanalytically-oriented psychologist based in NYC. She has a particular interest in what a psychoanalytic understanding can offer the world on various social issues, in popular culture, and more broadly, on simply being a human being in the digital age.

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