Preparing for the Onslaught

Pre-Traumatic Stress Condition is characterised by prolonged, significant anxiety about a potential threatening or devastating event. As a healthcare worker during the COVID-19 pandemic, you might be suffering from it.

We are living in unprecedented times. “The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused massive amounts of fear and anxiety in everyone,” says Ronel Groenewald, a counselling psychologist at Mediclinic Kimberley and Gariep. “Many healthcare workers believe they will be infected at some stage: if it is not a question of if, it is a question of when they will be infected by COVID-19. They are scared for their own health and terrified that they might bring the virus to their loved ones at home. The entire health system is under immense stress and pressure. This fear and anxiety can be overwhelming and can lead to strong emotions.”

Sufferers of Pre-Traumatic Stress Condition remain in a constant state of worry and heightened stress at their perceived helplessness to prevent the expected future trauma. As Groenewald adds, pre-traumatic stress during an infectious disease outbreak can include:

1.     Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones

2.     Changes in sleep or eating patterns

3.     Difficulty sleeping or concentrating

4.     Worsening of chronic health problems

5.     Worsening of mental health conditions

6.     Increased use of alcohol and drugs

“In the face of this tsunami, physical and emotional exhaustion is the biggest risk for all healthcare workers,” Groenewald explains. “They are pushing themselves beyond their normal capacity. This leads to feelings of isolation, which are exacerbated by social distancing and not being able to be with their families.”  

Groenewald adds that healthcare is a dynamic, demanding and often unpredictable environment in which to work. If you are experiencing any of the following emotional and cognitive warning signs, you might be suffering from Pre-Traumatic Stress Condition.

Sleep difficulties: not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep; and having nightmares about the ‘what ifs’

Anger: irritability and having difficulty controlling outbursts

Disconnection: feeling numb and having difficulty accessing loving feelings for friends and family

Depression: hopelessness and loss of interest

Anxiety

Feeling unsafe: both at work and at home

Pre-Traumatic Stress Condition is like any other stress, but is exacerbated by a feeling of powerlessness. Chronic stress sends messages to your brain that you’re not safe, and when stress hormones continuously soar, it becomes a health issue. To minimise the impact, Groenewald suggests:

-        Taking  a break from watching, reading or listening to stories regarding COVID-19, including social media. Hearing about the latest news can be alarming and upsetting. 

-        Taking care of your body by eating healthily, exercising, not overindulging in alcohol or drugs and sleeping  enough.

-        Making time to unwind and enjoy hobbies and family time.

-        Staying connected with others and talking about general things that don’t involve work.

-        Planning a special family dinner or holiday in the future. 

-        Meditating or spending time in quiet reflection can help calm your mind by increasing levels of the feelgood transmitter serotonin and increasing alpha waves in the brain.

-        Talking to colleagues and supervisors can also be helpful. Together you can  identify what the hazards and stumbling blocks are, how to pace yourself, when to take appropriate breaks, and other ways you can prepare yourself.

-        Reminding yourself that the dangers might be real, but that fear is a choice.