PTSD link to pandemic fears

Even at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, people around the world became  more fearful of what could happen to them or their family.

A new Flinders University study of 1040 online participants from five western countries published in PLOS ONE explores people’s response to the stresses of the escalating pandemic, finding more than 13% of the sample had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related symptoms consistent with levels necessary to qualify for a clinical diagnosis.

Dr Melanie Takarangi, psychology researcher at Flinders University.

With ongoing economic and social fallout, and death toll of more than 2 million, the team of psychology researchers warn more needs to be done to cope with the potential short and long-term spike in PTSD cases resulting from the pandemic – as well as related mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, psychosocial functioning, etc.

“While the global pandemic does not fit into prevailing PTSD models, or diagnostic criteria, our research shows this ongoing global stressor can trigger traumatic stress symptoms,” says lead researcher Associate Professor Melanie Takarangi, from Flinders Psychology.

“We found that traumatic stress was related to future events, such as worry about oneself or a family member contracting COVID-19, to direct contact with the virus, as well as indirect contact such as via the news and government lockdown – a non-life threatening event,” says co-author Victoria Bridgland, who is undertaking a PhD studying the triggers of PTSD.

PTSD is a set of reactions, including intrusive recollections such as flashbacks, that can develop in people exposed to an event that threatened their life or safety (e.g. sexual assault, natural disaster).

Photo: Getty Images

“Our findings highlight the need to focus on the acute psychological distress – including the perceived emotional impact of particular events – associated with COVID-19 and build on other research from the past year that demonstrates the damaging psychological impact of COVID-19 on mental health,” says Ms Bridgland.

Comprehensive long-term documentation of COVID-19 related traumatic stress reactions will allow health professionals to help people who could otherwise fall through the cracks, the research team concludes.

The online survey examined a range of responses to common post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as repeated disturbing and unwanted images, memories or thoughts about the COVIC-19 pandemic.

COVID-19’s psychological fallout has been dubbed the “second curve,” predicted to last for months to years, the paper notes.

“Notably, while most of our participants reported experiencing some form of psychological distress and 13.2% of our sample were likely PTSD positive when anchoring symptoms to COVID-19, only 2% of our total sample reported they had personally tested positive to COVID-19, and only 5% reported that close family and friends had tested positive.

“It therefore seems likely that the psychological fallout from COVID-19 may reach further than the medical fallout,” the paper concludes.

The new paper, ‘Why the COVID-19 pandemic is a traumatic stressor’ (2021) by VME Bridgland, EK Moeck, DM Green, TL Swain, DM Nayda, LA Matson, NP Hutchison and MKT Takarangi (2021) has been published in PLOS ONE (Nature) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0240146

Flinders University online resources:

Flinders University’s Órama Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing has been conducting a range of research on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and has developed resources to help support those in quarantine or adjusting to life after lockdown. The expert Órama APPEAL and CARE framework (, developed for work during/post COVID related restrictions could be helpful resources for periods of COVID-19 lockdown.

Flinders University experts also conduct research and offer targeted PTSD services at the Posttraumatic Stress Clinic at Bedford Park, Adelaide, as well as online and via telehealth. Some people with PTSD are mistakenly diagnosed with depression or some form of general anxiety, says Professor Reg Nixon, Director of the Flinders Posttraumatic Stress Clinic.


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College of Education, Psychology and Social Work Flinders University Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing