Working On The Front Lines: What Medical Professionals Treating COVID-19 Patients Should Know About Trauma

By now, the entire world is tired of hearing the terms unprecedented, social distancing, and quarantine. Similarly, everyone is struggling with the devastating reality associated with COVID-19. People feel terrified of getting sick- or their loved ones getting sick. They feel worried about losing their jobs or the economy collapsing. They feel lonely, and they’re missing their family and friends. We’ve never experienced a pandemic of this nature in our lifetime, and it’s been a tumultuous ride.

But for medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients, you’re experiencing stress on an entirely different plane. Many of you report feeling underappreciated and overworked. Some of you altered your entire routine to protect yourself and your loved ones. Indeed, many of you are struggling, and you don’t know where to turn.  

The Trauma Of Working The Front Lines

Medical professionals typically enter the field because they want to help people. They have a strong passion for connecting and understanding and treating a variety of issues. 

That said, this work doesn’t come without a high emotional toll. Research shows that more than two-thirds of medical providers who experienced a distressing event suffer from depression, anxiety, or PTSD symptoms after the incident. Likewise, more than half of physicians experience devastation from events they didn’t cause. 

Trauma essentially refers to any disturbing life event that leaves a lasting, negative impression. As we know, COVID-19 essentially represents several traumas rolled into one pandemic. 

Depending on your circumstances, these particular traumas may include:

  • Continuous exposure to severe patient illness and death
  • Witnessing the illnesses and deaths of colleagues 
  • Working in physically hazardous conditions (i.e., lack of personal protective equipment)
  • Experiencing serious concern about your own health and the health of your family
  • Stress related to “being in the spotlight” in mainstream media 
  • Vicarious trauma from constant exposure and coverage about COVID-19 developments 

Of course, everyone responds to trauma differently. For example, some of your colleagues may seem unfazed. Others may be downright disturbed or inconsolable. Many people put on a “brave face” at work only to unravel when they’re alone. 

All of these responses are normal. When faced with severe distress, we react with our primal fight-flight-freeze response. Additionally, our body releases adrenaline, which can keep you going and going and going- despite the sadness and fear. 

Additionally, trauma doesn’t always work on a linear timeline. Sometimes, symptoms can take several weeks or months to emerge. They may ebb and flow, peak, and wane. Invariably, some moments will feel much harder than other moments. 

Unresolved trauma responses can lead to both acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. They can also exacerbate mood and anxiety disorders. 

What Symptoms Should You Be Most Concerned About? 

As mentioned, trauma affects everyone differently. While not everyone who experiences trauma develops conditions like PTSD, it’s important to be aware of the more concerning warning signs. 

These symptoms may warrant the need for professional support: 

  • Immense guilt and shame
  • Self-doubt and self-blame 
  • Feelings of unworthiness and incompetence
  • Complete disconnection or numbness
  • Increase in physical responses (ulcers, backaches, cluster migraines, etc.)
  • Loss of motivation
  • Severe sleep disturbances
  • Increased substance use
  • Suicidal ideation

What Should You Do If You’re Struggling?

Physical exhaustion, compassion fatigue, and medical complications pose very real risks for medical professionals right now. Unfortunately, many people dismiss these symptoms. They believe they must “power through them.” They try to ignore or distract or numb them altogether.

Many times, if untreated, these symptoms can progress. As a result, you may find yourself struggling in other areas of your life. Your work may suffer, but your relationships, self-esteem, and physical health may suffer as well.

Support is paramount during this time. Isolation only tends to make difficult feelings worse. It’s okay if you don’t know how to talk about what’s going on. The experience may seem so surreal or confusing or tragic that you don’t quite know how to untangle your feelings. 

Therapy can help people cope with past or present traumas. Specifically, EMDR therapy can increase desensitization to triggering feelings and thoughts. Likewise, successful EMDR treatment allows you to navigate challenging obstacles. You can learn to manage your work situation without feeling so overwhelmed or depressed. 

How Medical Professionals Treating COVID-19 Patients Can Best Take Care Of Themselves

Medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients face enormous pressure and stress during every work shift. The gravity of these responsibilities can feel crushing. Your work undeniably matters, but your well-being matters, too.

You’re not alone, and you don’t have to suffer alone. Just like patients depend on you for guidance and recovery, you’re allowed to reach out for help as well. At Willow Counseling, we specialize in treating trauma and helping people cope with such stressors. Relief is possible. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation. 

Willow Counseling, PLLC – Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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