Have you had difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event? Are certain things triggering you, bringing back memories of the traumatic event? You may be experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
So what is traumatic stress, what are the symptoms, and how does it develop?
Studies show that about 50 percent of women and 60 percent of men experience at least one trauma in their lifetime (accounts for about 8 million adults affected a year).
From a psychological perspective, trauma occurs when a person experiences an intense event that either threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical well-being. In response to that intense event, many people experience traumatic stress, which is a normal reaction to an abnormal event.
Traumatic events usually involve actual or near death experiences, events leading to serious injury, or sexual violence. Many people will experience traumatic stress by just witnessing a horrific or abnormal event. There are many different types of traumatic events, some of the most common traumatic events include:
- Domestic violence
- Automobile accidents
- Seeing death or dead bodies
- Combat or war zone exposure
- Natural disasters
- Serious medical events
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Sexual or physical assault
- Unexpected death of a loved one
- Mass violence or mass shootings
- Witnessing or experiencing suicide
- Witnessing or experiencing a homicide
Traumatic stress could also stem from the trauma of losing a friend or family member. Trauma could also be chronic, which means that similar events continue to happen over a period of time. Most grown adults have lived through at least one traumatic event of some sort.
What are common reactions to traumatic events?
After going through a traumatic experience, people react in both psychological and physiological ways, whether they’re aware of it or not. The days following a traumatic event, it’s common for people to experience a combination of unpredictable emotions as well as physical symptoms such as:
- Feeling anxiousness
- Intrusive flashbacks of the event
- Trouble or difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Feeling nervous, suspicious, or on high alert
- Difficulty feeling positive emotions
- Intrusive thoughts
- Relationship problems
- Distancing yourself from friends or family
- Avoiding people, places, thoughts, or memories involving the traumatic event
Some people have symptoms similar to posttraumatic stress disorder in the following days and weeks following the traumatic experience. In most cases, those symptoms go away on their own in time, known as natural recovery. This recovery is often seen in sexual assault victims.
On the other hand, some people experience problems that do not go away, such as developing long-term posttraumatic stress disorder.
As everyone is affected differently, some people show resistance and never experience any major issues following the traumatic experience. For others, people are able to recover naturally and independently by developing coping strategies to help deal with the symptoms. With the use of coping strategies, symptoms usually tend to get better with time, although people who suffer with more intense symptoms may need professional help.
How Can I Recover?
The symptoms of traumatic stress can affect you for years, severely impacting the quality of your life. It is important to keep in mind that recovery is an ongoing process that may take time. Here are some steps you can take to help cope with the symptoms of traumatic stress:
- Overcome your sense of helplessness
Trauma can leave you feeling completely powerless, empty and alone. The most important thing to do to overcome your ongoing anxiety and fears is to have a reality check and remind yourself of your strengths. A great way to reclaim your sense of power is to help others. Try to do a random act of kindness each day. It can be something as little as giving a stranger a compliment. By taking positive action, it challenges your sense of helplessness, reminding you of your importance in this world.
- Go outside and exercise
A great way to cope is to find a physical activity that you enjoy, whether it be going for a walk or going to the gym every day. A physical activity that you enjoy will get your mind off of traumatic stress and help to reduce your levels of stress.
- Art therapy
Art therapy helps people to externalize their emotions and learn to cope with distressing memories through the creation of art, whether it be painting, drawing, creating pottery, or practicing photography.
- Mindfulness Meditation
To be mindful is the human ability to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we are doing and not getting overwhelmed with what’s going on around us. You can practice mindfulness by sitting down in a quiet, relaxing area and meditating. Meditating can be as simple as focusing on your breathing or by being more aware of the things you do every day.
- Support from others
Having someone you trust that you can talk to about what you are going through can be extremely beneficial and helpful to recover. Having someone to talk to about your struggles helps to get through stressful situations as they provide emotional validation. A supportive relationship is particularly beneficial for someone trying to recover from traumatic stress, whether it be a friend, support group, or medical professional. Talking things out will help relieve and manage your anxiety and fears.
How can I find someone to help me?
There are many hot-lines and professional organizations that have directories of mental health professionals who specialize in the area of treating traumatic stress disorders. ISTSS (International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies), a professional organization for example, has their directory of mental health professionals listed online.
If you are struggling with dealing with a traumatic event, experiencing horrid flashbacks, or just need someone to talk to you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
If you don’t feel comfortable talking with a stranger on the phone in the wake of a traumatic experience, but you still want someone to talk to, text CONNECT to 741741. This Crisis Text Line is free and available for support 24/7 from trained crisis counselors via text message.
Recovering from a traumatic event can feel like a never-ending battle of heightened fear and anxiety, making life extremely difficult. But there are many ways you can cope to help deal with the residual symptoms and reduce your anxiety and fear. It is important to always remain aware that healing can’t happen overnight and that recovery is an ongoing process.