WXXI AM News

For some, trauma symptoms won't surface until after the pandemic

May 4, 2020

Tonya Girard, MS, LMFT
Credit provided photo

The coronavirus pandemic has touched every aspect of our lives, and there is no definite end to all the changes.

It's not surprising then, that therapists are talking to a lot of people about stress, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.

Tonya Girard's list of clients has grown quickly since the beginning of the pandemic.

The licensed marriage and family therapist is treating some people who have never sought counseling before.

"People who were coping well in their lives, just day to day and didn't really need anybody to talk to, are now finding it difficult to be isolated, sometimes isolated with their families, or whatever. They're reaching out and needing that extra support," she said.

Girard has worked with clients who are family members and friends of people who have died from COVID-19, as well as with health care workers and with people across the community who are being affected in one way or another.

What they all have in common is fear and uncertainty. If people don't have someone to talk to, Girard explained, that can spiral into a relapse of some unhealthy habits such as drug and alcohol dependency or lack of sleep, just to mention a few.

It's easy to see why. One of the chief coping mechanisms we all rely on in difficult times is each other. Someone to commiserate with, go to lunch or shopping with, or simply spend time together.

Girard said social behavior is crucial to our mental health, especially when we get to choose how and when we spend time with people.

"Without having access to that social experience in ways that we find meaningful, we suffer," she said.

When people are forced to share small spaces with the same people over time, we can be presented with new challenges, too, Girard added. 

Under ordinary circumstances, someone could walk away if tension and conflict are escalating. They might seek out a healthy diversion like a gym workout or a walk.

"Now, we're losing access to those outlets, so anger and other things start to build," she said.

While some people are having trouble coping now, Girard said it wouldn't be surprising if a certain portion of the population didn't start showing signs of traumatic stress until months after the pandemic ends.

She compared this to the traumatic stress experienced by those who go to war.

"Once the storm dies down and the stimulation dies down a little bit," Girard said, "that's when it's safer for you to start having those complicated thoughts and feelings. They can flood people."

Sometimes the pain manifests physically with headaches or a sore back.

If you are feeling overwhelmed or need someone to talk to right away, you can reach the 24-hour crisis line for the Rochester-Finger Lakes region by calling 211.

Click on the LISTEN link above to hear this story.