Though it’s an evolutionary advantage, Dr. Difede points out, the problem is the body doesn’t always know how to turn off these feelings.
“We don’t know how to dial down the risk,” says Dr. Difede, who is also a professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Our brain continues to look for the enemy.” This can lead to avoidance, increased substance use, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and lingering feelings of stress or a sense of vigilance.
Complicating that response is the fact that COVID has been an invisible, prolonged threat.
“Often, a person’s threat is clear to them and they are faced with a choice of what to do, but since the threat of COVID-19 is invisible and society has been facing that threat for so long, your body is constantly preparing to fight, flee, or freeze, perceiving danger literally everywhere,” says Dr. Difede.
For two decades, Dr. Difede has worked to develop innovative treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including virtual reality exposure therapy, which immerses people in detailed scenarios based on their experiences to help them gradually approach trauma-related memories, feelings, and situations in order to reduce PTSD symptoms. To date, she and her team have treated hundreds of patients, including active military, veterans, burn victims, cancer and 9/11 survivors, as well as firefighters, police officers, disaster rescue and recovery workers, and healthcare workers. Today, as a pioneer in the field, she is spearheading research and focusing on developing treatments for healthcare and other essential workers and COVID-19 survivors facing pandemic-related PTSD. This research includes projects focused on medical music intervention to address sleep disturbances related to PTSD, as well as narrative writing, interpersonal therapy and prolonged exposure therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy to gradually approach trauma-related memories.
She emphasizes that no matter who you are, this has been a uniquely challenging and traumatic time in many ways, compounded by reduced social connection as we retreated into our homes or isolated away from our loved ones for a time to reduce the spread.
“Everyone has the same vulnerability, whether civilian or first responder,” she says. “There’s a dose relationship with trauma, and while health care workers and other front line workers may have had higher doses of trauma, we’re all human and our brains are wired the same way.”
“As humans, we often think that if the problem seems enormous, the solution has to be, and that isn’t really the case,” she says.
Dr. Difede shares her tips on how to prioritize and recover your mental health during difficult times.