Why the COVID-19 pandemic is a traumatic stressor

Victoria M. E. Bridgland, Ella K. Moeck, Deanne M. Green, Taylor L. Swain, Diane M. Nayda, Lucy A. Matson, Nadine P. Hutchison, Melanie K.T. Takarangi

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286 Citations (Scopus)
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The COVID-19 pandemic does not fit into prevailing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) models, or diagnostic criteria, yet emerging research shows traumatic stress symptoms as a result of this ongoing global stressor. Current pathogenic event models focus on past, and largely direct, trauma exposure to certain kinds of life-threatening events. Yet, traumatic stress reactions to future, indirect trauma exposure, and non-Criterion A events exist, suggesting COVID-19 is also a traumatic stressor which could lead to PTSD symptomology. To examine this idea, we asked a sample of online participants (N = 1,040), in five western countries, to indicate the COVID-19 events they had been directly exposed to, events they anticipated would happen in the future, and other forms of indirect exposure such as through media coverage. We then asked participants to complete the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist-5, adapted to measure pre/peri/post-traumatic reactions in relation to COVID-19. We also measured general emotional reactions (e.g., angry, anxious, helpless), well-being, psychosocial functioning, and depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms. We found participants had PTSD-like symptoms for events that had not happened and when participants had been directly (e.g., contact with virus) or indirectly exposed to COVID-19 (e.g., via media). Moreover, 13.2% of our sample were likely PTSD-positive, despite types of COVID-19 “exposure” (e.g., lockdown) not fitting DSM-5 criteria. The emotional impact of “worst” experienced/anticipated events best predicted PTSD-like symptoms. Taken together, our findings support emerging research that COVID-19 can be understood as a traumatic stressor event capable of eliciting PTSD-like responses and exacerbating other related mental health problems (e.g., anxiety, depression, psychosocial functioning, etc.). Our findings add to existing literature supporting a pathogenic event memory model of traumatic stress.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0240146
Number of pages15
JournalPLoS One
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jan 2021


  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  • PTSD
  • traumatic stress symptoms
  • trauma exposure
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • mental health
  • psychosocial functioning


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