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5 Symptoms You Might Have If COVID-19 Triggers Your NICU PTSD

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I have been snappy for the last two weeks. I associated it with being an extrovert locked inside due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but as the days passed, nothing seemed to help it subside. The snappiness came to a head when it was time for me to venture out to the grocery store. As the non-immunosuppressed adult in the house, it was my task.

I spent hours planning my trip to the grocery store. I laid awake for hours the night before, rehearsing my strategy and compensating for flaws in the plan:

Touch everything with your left hand. Remember what you touched. Wash everything when you get home. Strip down, shower, disinfect the handles when you are clean. I couldn’t eat before I left.

Fear tied my stomach in knots. By the end of the shopping adventure, I was sweating profusely. There was something so familiar about this fear, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

It wasn’t until I talked to a fellow neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) mom that I realized what was going on. An unknown scary and potentially medical situation is lurking. Our hands are raw from washing around the clock. In the hopes of staying healthy, our families are in complete isolation and our fears are at an all-time high. My husband and I find ourselves taking everyone’s temperatures multiple times a day to reassure ourselves that we are OK. The quarantine timeline changes daily, and the news is blasting us with a constant stream of medical jargon. What does this all mean? Our country is operating at a fear level known by NICU parents. Many of us, including myself, are experiencing a flare-up of NICU post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to, PTSD occurs as a result of experiencing trauma. Typically, it is associated with veterans and with war and catastrophe, but it can happen to anyone who has gone through a traumatic situation. The coronavirus crisis triggers NICU-PTSD because it is a potentially terminal medical condition with very unpredictable outcomes. If you are a parent of a NICU graduate, here are some PTSD symptoms to be aware of during this trying time.

1. Flashbacks.

PTSD symptoms include flashbacks to the event triggered by everyday activities. The hand-washing videos and our own raw, dry hands can induce the panic that this simple act brought about while our children struggled to grow in the NICU. The hand sanitizer stations and news reports on the importance of temperature taking can also cause flashbacks.

2. Nightmares.

Nightmares are prevalent for people with PTSD. Dreams involving separation, inability to get to your loved ones and isolation are the brain’s way of dealing with the trauma it experienced.

3. Extreme avoidance.

NICU parents are well-versed in isolation. When it gets to the point that any perceived risk will make them want to avoid all places, people or activities that could be dangerous, then it is a problem.

4. Heightened awareness of danger.

People who are experiencing PTSD have a heightened sense of awareness and are on the constant lookout. For former NICU parents, germs are always on our minds. This tendency may translate into excessive cleaning or compulsive behaviors in situations where the brain determines harm exists.

5. Moodiness.

People experiencing PTSD are jumpy. The jumpiness is because their bodies are in fight-or-flight mode. Their adrenaline is pumping, and their muscles are ready to spring into action at any second. This state of being is exhausting. It can also result in chronic pain, a constant feeling of panic, depression and irritability.

If you are feeling this way, please reach out for help. Talking to a trained professional is the best first step. Hand to Hold and the March of Dimes support page are also incredible resources. Try to remind yourself what helped you get through the NICU. For example, maintain a daily schedule that includes rest time. Eat a variety of healthy foods and desserts. Dust off self-help books that you find helpful in times of crisis and read through them. Also, try to schedule daily times to connect digitally with people in the “outside” world. Often this helps to remind us that many people are experiencing the same fears as you. Just like during the NICU, you are not in this alone. People want to help, and we are here for you.

Struggling with parenting, anxiety or trauma due to COVID-19? Check out the following articles from our community:

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

Originally published: May 2, 2020
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