Post-Pandemic Stress Disorder: What It Is and How to Manage It

Experts on mental health and stress discuss how to process stress, anxiety and trauma induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, many people are beginning to realize the specific anxieties and triggers they’ve developed in response to the pandemic. As a result of the unprecedented stress and trauma we’ve experienced individually and as a society in the past year, some researchers are now calling for “Post-Pandemic Stress Disorder” to be recognized as a mental condition. 

“We can’t return to the old normal. We are evolving our way into a new reality… there is no right or wrong in how someone should cope. Whatever route you choose to go, it has to be about how you respond in the moment because you cannot control what happens.” — Owen O’Kane, psychotherapist

Listen: Recognizing and processing our post-pandemic trauma.


Owen O’Kane is a psychotherapist and author of “Ten to Zen: Ten Minutes a Day to a Calmer, Happier You.” He coined the term “Post-Pandemic Stress Disorder,” which he says was based on distinct pandemic-induced traits. “What struck me…. is that I see a lot of people really struggling with trauma-type symptoms.” O’Kane says one of the challenges in processing the trauma of the pandemic is the long-term adjustment. “Often during really traumatic incidents… we never really saw the true impact of trauma until after the event.”

O’Kane says to cope with post-pandemic stress, we need to confront our uncertainty and vulnerability. “We can’t return to the old normal. We are evolving our way into a new reality… there is no right or wrong in how someone should cope. Whatever route you choose to go, it has to be about how you respond in the moment because you cannot control what happens.” He says it’s important to remember we are in control of our coping responses to traumatic events.“We’ve all got to be thinking about ‘what are we doing to try to take care of ourselves?’ When we talk we process material. It’s about trying to manage and cope with the next step as it comes.” 

Mithu Storoni is a neuroscience researcher and author of “Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body — and Be More Resilient Every Day.” She says the invisible but high-risk threat of the pandemic is what’s made its traumatic effects so pronounced in our brains. “For many of us, this experience has been incredibly personal… the incessant experience of it through the media, through the images we have seen… is bringing these events very much close to us so that we are experiencing them firsthand.” Storoni says humans have evolved to have an intense short-term response to stress, which has been prolonged by the pandemic.“The brain navigates the world based on prediction, and the most important thing we have to predict is danger… (now) the brain is constantly predicting danger.”

Storoni says it is scientifically proven that socialization aids in processing trauma, which is why coping with the pandemic has been particularly difficult. “People are part of our environment… our sense of reality comes from seeing others and their sense of reality… the little island of certainty that you have built yourself becomes more solid when around others.” She says because many people have either refused to get vaccinated or flat-out denied the pandemic’s existence, that makes it more difficult for us to mentally handle. “In a situation like this, you need to feel you are facing a common enemy, this disease is a common enemy… when people around you are of a different opinion to you… that creates another factor of uncertainty within it.”

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is the founder and director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute. She says in the aftermath of a traumatic event, many people enter an overwhelmed state and worry about how horrible things might become in the future. “We don’t want to future trip… there’s significant concern about the cumulative long term toll of the pandemic on children… this has been brutal for kids.” Lipsky says children are resilient, but much of their pandemic trauma response depends on how adults cope. “No matter how much we as adults have tried to buffer kids from this… many of us adults have been so saturated that we’ve been rupturing… kids pick up on that.”

Lipsky says we need to create conditions for ourselves to process our post-pandemic trauma.  “The good news is there are lots of practices we can use to metabolize this trauma… things that don’t cost a lot of money.” She says our ability to tend to our mental health at this moment needs to be a priority. “This really is a time to be as compassionate as we can with each other and with ourselves.”

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