Dog Tag Alumni Share Experiences with COVID-19 and PTSD

June is National PTSD Awareness Month. As an organization that serves veterans and military families, we recognize that this is a reality that affects many of our fellows and alumni. We asked a few of our alumni to share how COVID-19 has changed the way they’re dealing with PTSD, and what they’re doing to continue to practice self care.

Lauren Warner: Lauren Warner is one of our rare “triple threats” - an Army veteran, spouse, and caregiver. Lauren served in the US Army for four years, where she met her husband, Seldon - also a Dog Tag alum. She resigned from the Army to become a full-time caregiver for Seldon, as he was experiencing increasing nightmares and other trauma related to an explosion from his Afghanistan deployment. She joined Dog Tag's Cohort 6, two cohorts before Seldon, discovered a passion for marketing, and has now turned that into a career. 

Sara Laszaic: Sara enlisted in the Florida Army National Guard as a Military Police Officer, then later served as a police officer in her hometown of Orlando for several years. She later completed Officer Candidate School, where she commissioned as a Military Police Officer. After nine years in service, Sara received treatment for her PTSD and medically retired. Sara wanted to utilize her experience as a first responder, veteran, and patient to raise awareness of the rising rates of first responders developing PTSD. Sara co-founded Badges United Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on improving the overall wellness of first responders. 

Question: How has COVID-19 affected your ability to cope with PTSD? 

Lauren Warner: Everything shutting down has created a whole new variety of stressors and has also magnified other stressors that we used to be able to deal with better. Though we live in a fairly safe area, we are between two fire stations and a police station so it seems that since March the sirens are just going nonstop every evening which is pretty stressful. To top it all off we're only fifteen minutes from the MD-DC border and in the worst county for COVID cases, which means I've been driving outside of the county any time I need to go grocery shopping or make a trip to Home Depot.

For Seldon, not much has changed since he's taking classes online and does his weekly therapy sessions via telehealth already. For me, my 'respite' is missing. I've had to get creative to give myself breaks.

 Sara Laszaic: PTSD encompasses several multifaceted symptoms: among them are major and/or chronic depression. One of the ways I’ve learned to manage my depression is by staying connected to people. If a person with depression feels isolated, this can be detrimental to their physical and mental health. It can feed into a cycle of catastrophizing and could even lead to suicide if not addressed. As COVID has demanded physical isolation, individuals with PTSD are more at risk of experiencing a mental health crisis if they do not have social support, access to health care, and a clinical crisis plan in place. I am grateful to have put solid healthy coping skills in place and am now leaning on them more than ever. This does not discredit the loneliness and losses I’ve experienced during the COVID outbreak; it simply means I need to practice an enormous amount of self-care every day.  

Question: What are some coping mechanisms you've found you are still able to take advantage of during COVID? Have you discovered new ones?

Lauren Warner: Seldon and I have been doing yoga together daily, which I love doing anyway. I think it's been key in alleviating stress every morning (and sometimes twice a day). This is something he hadn't gotten into with me until the shutdown happened, and we also have my sister join us on a Zoom call when she can which has been fun. He has also been more proactive about walking the dogs with me which helps to get him out of the house. 

Additionally, I have been baking and cooking my way through all of my cookbooks, and making all the new and weird cocktails that I can find online. Also, Seldon has been perfecting a blueberry muffin recipe—usually being in the kitchen gets really stressful for him and he's managed to find something he enjoys making and is now focused on tweaking the recipe to make it his own—I totally don't mind taste testing them either!

Sara Laszaic: Daily coping skills I have personally relied on have been:

  1. Practicing self-compassion and giving myself permission to have authentic feelings

  2. Maintaining daily exercise and a healthy diet

  3. Limiting time spent watching the news and social media

  4. Finding new hobbies and learning something new

  5. Reviewing and adding to my gratitude list along with journaling

  6. Attending therapy, support groups, maintaining medications and sticking to a routine

Question: What do you wish you could say to others suffering with PTSD?

Lauren Warner: Take care of yourself! Whether it's laying out on the porch with a book, repainting furniture, buying fun things off Target or REI online, gardening, or binging a Netflix series. Recreate your self care while we're in this weird space. As both caregivers and wounded warriors, we already know there's no normal and we adapt and overcome and we can pivot better than most. 

"S--t sucks, drive on" Seldon says -- mostly because there are no other options.

Sara Laszaic: Please know that you are not alone and there are several ways you can maintain your symptoms in order to have a more fulfilling life. Educate yourself on the symptoms and speak to others who have PTSD and are further along in their journey of healing. There are different types of therapies specifically designed to process trauma and significantly reduce your symptoms. Reach out for support from clinicians, non-profit organizations, and communities that support mental health. Finally, new struggles can awaken new strengths within us that allow authenticity and promote growth.

Question: Any resources that you would like to share?

Lauren Warner: 

Sara Laszaic: Sometimes the mental health care offered by the VA may not be right for everyone. There are several non-profit and veteran service organizations (VSOs) that partner with civilian therapists who provide services at no cost to Veterans. A VSO I recommend is the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic and a non-profit I recommend is Headstrong.

Additional Resources:

Give An Hour: A nonprofit organization providing free and confidential mental health care to those who serve, veterans, and their families.

Operation Tohidu: Five-day free mental health retreat

Bouldercrest Retreat: Two–seven night free mental health retreat (also includes families)

Wounded Warrior Project – Project Odyssey: Ninety day free mental health program – short retreat and three month follow up support