NICU PTSD in the Time of Coronavirus

March 23, 2020
jessica tyler, ptsd, coronavirus
Photo credit: Jodi Ellen Photography

When Ben was in the NICU, I would wake up in the morning and for a moment everything was fine. For a brief second as I woke, I would forget. Then suddenly, my world would come crashing down, and I would remember where I was, and where he was. Reality would set in.

We were in the NICU for sixteen days, but that brief hospital stay changed our lives forever. It changed me. When we arrived home, we worked to develop a new routine. We juggled early intervention therapies, parenting a newborn & a toddler, and working full-time. In the early days I was so busy I didn’t have time for the anxiety that was developing.

Several months after Ben came home, I realized I was not okay. I would relive the moments that landed us in the NICU. I had flashbacks every time I saw an ambulance, and every time we had to go back to Children’s I would be full of anxiety. I couldn’t sleep. I lived in constant fear of losing my son.

The most mundane parenting tasks had me on edge. As Ben grew and began to develop and move, my fears grew more intense. I experienced anxiety when we ventured outside and had to go home immediately. I had such an intense fear – I had almost lost him once, and I had to protect him from it happening again. 

When I was finally diagnosed with PTSD, it was a relief. I was able to understand what was happening to me, and how the complexities of the trauma were impacting me. Through therapy, medication, exercise and time, I have been able to get to a place that I can breathe again. I have also learned how to let Ben live.

Enter coronavirus.

My family and I are safe. We are healthy. Our days have a new normal (and a LOT of quality time together), but we are okay. I’m filled with feelings that have subsided for so long. Neither of my boys are high-risk for COVID-19, but I’m filled with a fierce need to protect them and keep them safe. The feelings of fear and anxiety are back. I’m having flashbacks that I haven’t experienced in a while. All the old feelings I thought I’d reconciled are clawing at the surface of my brain and heart.

But why? I understand that it’s my PTSD rearing its ugly head (which puts me way ahead of the game compared to the last go-round). I haven’t figured out why now.


On my quest to understand and to try to find some relief, I reached out to my therapist, Molly Marr. She helped me to understand that our time in the NICU and the coronavirus aren’t connected on the surface. But they connected in ways that I’m not always aware of.

She told me that, “the part of your brain that recognizes danger and moves you into fight or flight when needed is not at all connected into the logical realities of 2020. Your brain is reacting to threat cues. There are threat cues that you are experiencing each day during this current crisis. Seeing empty shelves at the grocery stores, financial strains, thinking how will I keep my job and care for my children – those are threat cues, and with PTSD, those threat cues are being interpreted as ‘I am not safe,’ or ‘I am in danger.’”

It makes sense. The whole time we were in the NICU I felt an impending sense of danger and fear. At first each day seemed to bring us more bad news, and I lived with a fear that Ben’s tiny body couldn’t handle it. While there wasn’t that same sense of danger when we discharged, my brain and body held on to that and to the fear. 

In the time of coronavirus, I’m trying to use all that I’ve learned to keep the anxiety at bay. I look at my sweet Ben, now three years out of the NICU, and I work to see all that he is, all that we have. When the anxiety creeps in, I take a deep breath. I give Ben a big hug and myself a little grace and remember how far we have come from those days. This is just another stop in our journey.

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