So, what is PTSD? Here's how to know if you've suffered from the disorder this year

Including the more subtle symptoms that are often missed

What is PTSD? A nurse on a covid ward wearing PPE stares out of the window
(Image credit: Marie Claire UK)

Including the more subtle symptoms that are often missed

If you're Googling, 'what is PTSD?', chances are you've read about the many different kinds of PTSD that NHS staffers, frontline workers and even ordinary WFH-ers are currently facing.

A Psychiatry Res. study released in October 2020 found that all healthcare workers are at a 'significant' risk of developing either PTSD - that's post-traumatic stress disorder - or PTSS - post-traumatic stress symptoms - as a result of the influx of COVID cases in most hospitals across the UK.

While figures and hospital admissions are thankfully under control at current, cases do appear to be rising as lockdown restrictions ease. So, if you're a nurse, key worker, doctor, carer, or anyone else who thinks they might be currently experiencing PTSD, first things first, know this: you are not alone. There is help out there to support you through this. And secondly, let us help where we can.

Keep reading as a psychologist breaks down what, in it's most basic form, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder actually is, plus how to notice the more subtle signs of it in yourself today.

What is PTSD?

According to doctor Becky Spelman, psychologist at the Private Therapy Clinic, PTSD occurs when you go through any traumatic incident.

"It can happen after either one traumatic incident or several," she explains. "Some incidences which can trigger PTSD may not appear on the surface to be obvious traumas and may, in fact, not seem very serious to some people, but may cause distress in another individual, particularly if the event happens repeatedly."

In short, one person's trauma may not be another person's, so try not compare yours to others.

Similarly, not everyone who experiences a trauma will go on to develop PTSD, Becky explains. "In the case of a single event, PTSD can only be diagnosed after four weeks of the trauma taking place. This is because in many cases, where someone has experienced chronic stress, the symptoms may resolve themselves within the first four weeks."

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms include:

"Often, the individual may feel that the trauma is happening right at that moment, forcing them to relive it over and over again," Becky shares.

Types of PTSD to know about

So, why are medical staff experiencing PTSD? 

An obvious question but an important one that needs to be addressed nonetheless.

Essentially, medical staff have had to deal with more patients than they could handle at several points over the last year. Not only were they handling more patients than ever before, they're were also having to deal with more severely ill patients - and deaths - than they were used to, too. All of which adds up to trauma and at the very minimum, and PTSD in some cases.

"Thanks to the influx of patients due to COVID, medical staff are more likely to be experiencing PTSD than ever before as a result of what they've had to deal with every day. It's relentless," Becky shares.

Does she think the NHS could have been more prepared? In short, no. "Nothing could have prepared them for the exhaustion, shock, and frustration the pandemic would cause. The sheer volume of sick and dying patients is something that the healthiest of minds would have difficulty in processing. These teams are at particular risk of developing PTSD as when they experience one traumatic event after another, their mind doesn’t have time to process it and recover before the next one comes along.

4 tips for overcoming PTSD, if you're experiencing it

1.Write down your thoughts

To treat PTSD, it can often help to write down in detail what you’ve been through from start to finish, the psychologist shares. "Read the story out loud as a narrative and record it, then listen to the narrative repeatedly, each time rating your level of distress out of ten with the aim of reducing that distress and eradicating it completely," she advises.

2. Talk to your friends

An obvious recommendation, but something that could be seriously soothing. "Talking to trusted friends and family about what happened is important," the psychologist shares. Although, do note here: she advises choosing these people carefully, as not everyone will be able to calmly listen to details of a traumatic event and not become distressed themselves.

3. Chat to an expert

"Therapists are useful as they are trained to listen to such details without being affected, and help you to process the information," Becky explains.

4. Get professional help

PTSD tricks the brain into thinking that danger is always imminent, so the person is constantly on high alert and consumed with fear and anxiety by these 'false alerts', Becky explains.

"Trauma-focused CBT and eye movement desensitisation reprocessing therapy are both powerful techniques that can be used. They're very similar. The former uses a narrative approach, aka talks through what has happened. The latter is more neurological, helping the right side and left side of the brain to work together to process the memory of the trauma."

In short, getting professional help is always the best course of action if you're suffering. Sane offers some great resources for PTSD sufferers, as does Mind and the NHS website.

Do reach out to a doctor if you're worried - they're there to help, after all.

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.