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Coping with PTSD during a pandemic

Over the past year, many veterans have said the pandemic has been a trigger of their PTSD symptoms, bringing back feelings of being in a combat zone.

TAMPA, Fla. — The pandemic has caused stress and fear for many of us. There's a lot of unknowns and uncertainty still today.  

For those with PTSD, this pandemic can be more than just a stressor. It can be a trigger. Many veterans say it brings back feelings of being in a war zone.

This last year has been a rollercoaster ride for Giovanna Bauman.

On the downside, her husband is stationed in another state, so they can't see each other often.

"It's difficult, but we're making it work. We have a good foundation, so we're making it work."

But on the upside, she started working with the V-A in Tampa helping with COVID-19 vaccinations.

"I really like it because I'm being brought back to part of a team where we're really needed."

While the ups and downs seem standard in a pandemic year, Giovanna has a history with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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She joined the military when she was 19 years old. Then she went to Fort Drum, New York and was deployed to Northern Baghdad. Giovanna was medically discharged after being diagnosed with PTSD.

"Whenever I'm doing data entry at work, those intrusive thoughts come, so I start singing to myself and I have my mask on so nobody can see my mouth moving, but just gotta do that. A little happy song in my head and then, keep going."

Dr. Jessica Gallinati is a clinical psychologist and director of the PTSD Clinical team at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa.

For many with PTSD, she says they've been experiencing an increase in general distress over the past year.

Many have talked about increased substance misuse, alcohol or marijuana, sleep problems, increased anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation from family and loved ones and thoughts of suicide.

"I think a lot of veterans report that the pandemic has really brought back feelings of being in a combat zone. The pandemic kind of is this invisible enemy you don't really know where you might contract the illness."

The Wounded Warrior Project has conducted an Annual Warrior Survey for more than a decade to help understand the needs of the more than 148,000 injured post-9/11 veterans it serves. The 2020 survey was from May to June, during the pandemic.

It found a common challenge was getting care.

59 percent reported their physical health appointments had been postponed or canceled. 38 percent reported their mental health appointments had been postponed or canceled.

At James A. Haley, Dr. Gallianti's team switched to video telehealth technology and found veterans actually liked it because it cut down on the barriers to going to the building.

"Folks don't necessarily have to take time off from work as much, for travel distance to our clinic. And they're able to still be at home to provide childcare or eldercare if they need to."

While that was a big shift, her team found the effects of the treatments are comparable to the treatments in person.

Dr. Gallinati says PTSD is a disorder of avoidance. And the pandemic served to heighten that avoidance.

"They're not getting out like they were before, in terms of, from our perspective, a mental health provider perspective, challenging the veteran to go out into public to go to the very safe but anxiety-provoking situations."

Because Giovanna knows the lows of the struggle, she encourages others to ask for help.

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"Don't build walls of isolation. Build bridges and try to move forward because you do make a difference and don't ever think that being in that foxhole is going to help you out, you really need to reach out and build those bridges."

Dr. Gallinati says you need to recognize in yourself: are you more irritable, using more alcohol or drugs than normal, finding you want to isolate even more, withdrawing from relationships, having direct memories of your traumatic events, having dreams of them or nightmares.

If any of that is what you're dealing with, reach out and get help.

Here is a list of free mental health smartphone apps, online resources and educational information. 

The National Center for PTSD is a tremendous resource for all things trauma-related:

On Friday, June 18th, there is the 10th Annual PTSD Awareness Day Live Virtual Event. It will provide various types of trauma-related treatment offered in the Veterans Affairs health care system, and explain how you can get access to treatment at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital. V-A employees, patients, family members, and the community are welcome to attend.

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