Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be described as a group of stress reactions that can develop after we witness or experience a traumatic event.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event; post-traumatic stress is then the psychological stress that we experience due to our interpretation of an event as threatening or traumatic.
Psychological trauma can arise from many events including accidents, workplace injury, death, robbery, harassment, bullying, verbal and emotional abuse, natural disasters and emotionally intrusive thoughts. PTSD can also occur after repeated and extreme exposure to the details of traumatic events. For example, emergency workers may be exposed to repeated trauma at work.
The following are some common elements of a ‘traumatic event’:
- The incident or situation is unexpected and different from your normal, predictable life patterns;
- The incident destabilises your sense of control over your physical or emotional survival;
- It involves a physical or emotional threat to your life, your ego or your sense of self-worth;
- The situation exerts undue strain on your mental coping abilities;
- Some traumatic events happen over a long period of time, such as sexual abuse as a child, an abusive relationship, working with trauma, imprisonment or torture. Others can be a single event, such as a terrible car accident.
- Our exposure to a traumatic event can be direct (when we’ve experienced a personal trauma or witnessed a traumatic event) or indirect (when we hear/learn about a traumatic event).
- Traumatic events can be human-induced like crime, war, terrorism, assaults, abuse and car accidents, or they can be caused by natural disasters like earthquakes, bushfires, floods and cyclones.
Reactions to Trauma
Everybody responds differently to traumatic experiences.
Feelings of fear, sadness, anger and grief are common after a traumatic event; this is part of our natural human response to danger. Your reaction is influenced by your personal life experience, past trauma, your history of other mental health issues, and the specific impacts of the traumatic event on various areas of your life.
Traumatic events are distressing and overwhelming, and they can be very hard to come to terms with and process in our minds. They can be shocking and overwhelming, challenging your life perspective. You may start questioning things you always took for granted, like your safety, your loved ones’ safety, or the world and the people in it, or the purpose of life.
You might start to be very irritable or angry which can be hard on your friends, family or colleagues. You might feel despair, emotional numbing or a sense of isolation and loneliness. Your feelings can make it hard to connect to others and you might even start to withdraw from family and friends as you don’t feel like being social. For some people it might make it hard to go to work, while others might do too much work to try to distract themselves from their feelings. Some people with PTSD become very alert for danger and become overprotective with their children and relatives.
Reactions vary from person to person, however common reactions include:
- Severe anxiety, depression or stress;
- Physical symptoms such as, shock, palpitations, trembling, sweating and pain;
- Psychological symptoms such as fear, panic attacks, aggression and confusion, irritability and agitation;
- Reckless and self-defeating or self-harming behaviour;
- Feeling emotionally detached and disconnected from people and your surroundings;
- Avoidance of certain experiences out of fear of being reminded of or exposed to the trauma again;
- Flashbacks, nightmares or re-experiencing the trauma;
- Not being able to remember parts or the whole of the traumatic event;
- Severe emotional or physical reactions to things that remind us of the traumatic event;
- Reliving the event which then leads to a racing heartbeat and/or difficulty breathing;
- Recurring and intrusive thoughts and memories;
- Mood swings and emotional outbursts;
- Unable to enjoy things you used to find pleasurable;
- Survivor’s guilt, shame and negativity or pessimism, blaming yourself or others;
- Sleep disturbances and frequent waking;
- Poor concentration;
- Feeling ‘on edge’ and overly aroused, easily startled and hypervigilant;
- Interpersonal stress due to the above symptoms.
Coping with Trauma
Although the traumatic event may overpower your existing coping resources at the time, it is nevertheless possible to develop healthy ways of coping with the experience and diminishing its effects.
Over time, with support from family and friends, we start to make sense of what’s happened. These feelings usually fade and we recover.
However, sometimes witnessing a distressing event can lead to severe feelings of fear and anguish that stay with us for a long time. These feelings start to interfere with our lives and stop us doing what we used to do. We sometimes develop destructive and limiting behaviour patterns and habits to cope with our symptoms. When this happens, we need help to get through it.
We are human and have strong reactions to traumatic events. But there are effective treatments for PTSD, and you can find healthy and constructive ways of dealing with your symptoms, as well as to process the perceptions you developed as a result of the trauma, and to get to a state of acceptance.
If you recognise the above reactions or symptoms in yourself or in a friend, family member or colleague, it might be necessary to consult with your GP in order to get professional help.
Author: Willem van den Berg, B SocSci (Psychology & Criminology), B SocSci (Hons) (Psych), MSc Clinical Psychology.
Willem van den Berg is a Brisbane Psychologist with a compassionate, positive and non-judgmental approach, working with individuals, couples and families. His therapeutic toolbox includes evidence-based therapies including Clinical Hypnotherapy (Medical Hypno-Analysis), CBT, ACT and Interpersonal Therapy. William is fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
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