The Mental Health Effects of Highly Stressful Events

April 12, 2020

In a television interview on April 5, 2020, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams compared our experience of the coronavirus pandemic to epic struggles of the past. “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment,” Adams said.

Psychological reactions are a normal part of such big events, according to Milissa Kaufman, MD, PhD, director of McLean’s Dissociative Disorders and Trauma Research Program.

“We are wired biologically to react to stressful events with increased production of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ chemicals,” Kaufman said. “These chemicals in our bodies—part of our natural threat response—can activate in a way that can be adaptive but lead to feelings of psychological distress.”

According to Kaufman, during such challenges, we may experience difficult emotions, like fear, anxiety, guilt, irritability, sadness, and anger. We may feel numb or disconnected or experience short-term disruptions in our ability to think as we normally would. Trouble concentrating, difficulty making decisions, and diminished attention spans are common experiences at such times.

“Some people will react with slight or moderate disruption to their sense of well-being during the stressful event, but then experience no lasting effects,” Kaufman said. She added that if people experience persistently upsetting feelings or cognitive difficulties that notably disrupt their ability to function, it is important for them to seek help from a mental health professional.

People can also experience serious lasting reactions that include depression, addiction to substances used for coping, or even post-traumatic stress disorder. Those with chronic mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, are also at increased risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Collective Experience

Just as we are prone to psychological distress during large, unfolding events, we are also wired to seek social connection during these times.

“Connection to others can go a long way to lessen psychological distress,” Kaufman said.

She added that altruistic behaviors—selfless actions that are helpful to others—also are a part of our biology as human beings: “Highly stressful events can bring out the best in people. We will rally. We will nurture one another. And, we will try to make it through the best we can together.”

Dr. Milissa Kaufman
According to Kaufman, sharing the global experience of the current pandemic may help increase understanding and compassion for those who struggle with the effects of psychological trauma

We can build resiliency during the public health crisis by finding purpose in the event, engaging in generous acts, and maintaining faith. Volunteers sewing masks, donating items to food pantries, or buying groceries for vulnerable neighbors, for example, are boosting their mental health.

Embracing humor during highly stressful times can be a source of resilience, according to Kaufman. “It’s OK to tune out and watch a funny movie or send a funny meme,” she said. “Having a dark sense of humor during dark times is definitely OK.”

Kaufman added that post-traumatic growth—the transformative experience of living through and accepting the difficult reality of a highly stressful event—is real.

“Sometimes it is as simple as having a renewed appreciation for the connections we feel for our family, our friends, and our pets or rejoicing in the things in life that really matter, such as our health,” she said. With post-traumatic growth, we may have an enhanced sense of openness to novel experiences. We may even have highly personal spiritual awakenings or a deeper sense of faith in mankind or a higher power.

Not Everyone’s Traumatic Experience Is the Same

Kaufman said it is important to note that not everyone’s experience is the same. “Traumatic experiences are traumatic. For a good many people, there certainly is no silver lining,” she said. “There is tremendous pain and hardship and the hard work of recovery.”

She added that the coronavirus pandemic is a different kind of big event for all of us: “It is a mass traumatic event on a global community scale. It is ongoing, and there currently is no certainty about its end point,” she said. The fact we have to combat the coronavirus by distancing ourselves from one another physically adds another challenge.

“We all feel vulnerable,” Kaufman said. “There is loss of life and significant economic toll. We are bombarded daily with frightening words and images in the media. Many of us are struggling with new dimensions of aloneness.”

According to Kaufman, we are in uncharted waters in terms of understanding what both the short-term and long-term psychological effects of the pandemic will be. In the meantime, she said she and her colleagues in the mental health field are using technology to treat and support, and to extend their reach into communities to serve those most at need.

She thinks the experience of living through the coronavirus pandemic may serve as society’s great equalizer. “We are all going through a highly stressful experience—a big event—together,” she said. “We are all experiencing some form of distress, anxiety, or sense of increased isolation.”

Kaufman added, “I believe this shared experience will increase our understanding—and with that, our compassion—for those who struggle in their daily lives with chronic anxiety or other forms of mental health challenges.”

Are you or a loved one struggling to manage the effects of psychological trauma? McLean Hospital is here to help.

Call us now at 877.964.5565 to learn more about treatment fortrauma disorders.