Stress is a normal human response and something we all experience to some degree from time to time. Just think of an occasion when you were running late for work or for an important appointment, you were probably feeling the effects of stress then. In circumstances like these, the stress usually fades away fairly quickly and has no lasting effects.
However, other life events such as losing a job, a relationship breaking down, being diagnosed with a medical condition or a loved one dying can cause more significant stress and impact on our health and wellbeing. Even the things we consider good like getting married, going on holiday, changing jobs or moving home can be stressful.
Most people, given appropriate time and with support from family and friends, will get through these difficulties. Occasionally, people can get stuck in their distress and develop stress, trauma or post traumatic stress disorder symptoms. When this happens some help from a trained professional may be appropriate.
Trauma can be caused by any event that you perceive as being potentially threatening to your life or safety. This may be a one off event such as having a car accident, being physically attacked or being involved in a natural disaster. Or it can result from persistent stress such as living with domestic violence or sexual abuse, living with a terminal or debilitating illness, or living in a war zone.
An event does not actually have to be life-threatening or involve bodily harm to be traumatising, it is your perception of it that matters. In some cases you may not even feel frightened but your body may unconsciously perceive things like accidents, illnesses or surgery to be threatening. Conversely, no matter how frightening an event may seem, not everyone will be traumatised by it.
You are more likely to be traumatised by a stressful event if it happened unexpectedly, you felt helpless to stop it, it happened more than once, someone was intentionally cruel or it happened during your childhood.
In some cases there may be no memory of a traumatic experience. However, if you are experiencing trauma symptoms it is likely that something traumatising has happened.
Post traumatic stress
The most serious form of stress is traumatic stress which results from experiencing a traumatic situation. Post Traumatic Stress is stress that continues long after (usually six months or more) a traumatic event has occurred. Post Traumatic Stress usually causes a problem in one area of your life associated with the original traumatic event. For example, someone who has developed Post Traumatic Stress following a car accident may become overwhelming fearful of being in a car or may even avoid using a car altogether, but will otherwise be unaffected in other aspects of their life.
Symptoms of post traumatic stress
The trauma symptoms described below are a normal response to a traumatic event, which everyone will experience to some degree. Usually, these symptoms get better by themselves and fade away over time. However, when they happen together over a long period of time (six months or more), it is almost certainly an indication of unresolved trauma.
Physical symptoms of post traumatic stress
- Rapid heartbeat and breathing
- Increased sweating
- Cold or clammy skin
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty sleeping
- Exaggerated startle response (jumpiness)
- Unexplained aches and pains
Emotional symptoms of post traumatic stress
- Shock, anger or denial
- Guilt, shame and self-blame
- Feeling helpless or inadequate
- Feeling sad or tearful
- Feeling anxious or fearful or even having a panic attack
- Feeling emotionally numb
Other symptoms of post traumatic stress
- Nightmares or flashbacks
- Feeling unreal or disconnected in some way
- Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
- Avoidance of anything associated with the trauma
- Withdrawal from others
If you are concerned that you suffering from post traumatic stress and it is impacting on your life, please contact your doctor who will be able to help assess your symptoms and give you a proper diagnosis.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is an anxiety disorder which occurs when stress escalates to such an extent that it affects your ability to function on a daily basis and impacts on most aspects of your life. People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often have survivor guilt, relive the trauma through nightmares or as flashbacks, feel frequently on edge and alert to danger, feel emotionally numb and disconnected from reality, have persistent distressing thoughts or images and are likely to have problems trusting people.
Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD
If the above trauma symptoms are not resolved, other symptoms may appear and develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Symptoms may develop days, weeks, months or even years after the traumatic event.
Physical symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD
- Hypervigilance – always being on “red alert”
- Exaggerated startle response (jumpiness)
- Increased sensitivity to light and sound
- Sleep problems
- Unexplained aches, pains and illnesses
- Panic attacks and anxiety
Emotional symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD
- Abrupt mood swings
- Difficulty dealing with stress (always feeling stressed out)
- Frequent crying
- Emotional numbness
- Depression and feelings of impending doom
- Feelings of detachment, alienation and isolation
- Loss of interest in life and suicidal feelings
- Feelings of being helpless
- Inability to love or trust
- Fear of dying or going crazy
Other symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD
- Intrusive memories or flashbacks
- Nightmares and night terrors
- Mental blankness
- Forgetfulness or amnesia
- Difficulty concentrating
- Limiting life choices (never going on dates, applying for jobs, etc.)
- Avoiding situations associated with the trauma
- Avoiding social contact
- Attraction to dangerous situations
- Exaggerated or diminished sexual activity
- Using alchohol or drugs to self-medicate
According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), approximately 80-90% of sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder go on to develop other problems such as anxiety or depression.
If you think you are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD it is important to see your doctor as soon as possible so that your symptoms can be properly assessed, diagnosed and treated.
Carolyn is a counsellor, hypnotherapist and supervisor based in Plymouth, UK. She offers counselling and hypnotherapy at her practice in Plymouth and online via Zoom.