People who experience or witness a traumatic incident (eg car accident; rape; sexual, physical or emotional abuse; violent crime; active service; bullying) may develop distinct and debilitating symptoms, which for some are so acute they are unable to resume normal activities. Sometimes, survivors of accidents and incidents, find themselves inadvertently re-experiencing emotions of the frightening event, which can result in fear, anxiety or panic attacks, especially when they engage in activities or situations related to their original trauma (eg driving; walking in town; uncomfortable relationships; raised voices; returning home after a holiday/night out). In order to cope, sufferers develop ways hide or manage their emotional pain. These adaptations to normal behaviour can create secondary problems such as: substance abuse; self harm; promiscuity; anger or rage; avoidance of situations or relationships. It is important to know the uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating symptoms are normal reactions for people who have experienced or witnessing extraordinary events and are commonly called Acute Stress or Post-Traumatic Stress.
What Are The Symptoms of Acute Stress or Post-Traumatic Stress?
There are four categories of symptoms that can occur as a result of experiencing a traumatic or shocking event. These are:
The person is vigilant, wired or jumpy until they know – beyond doubt – the danger has passed or they are not going to suffer as a result of doing the same activity connected with the accident or incident. Symptoms may be (or similar to) to one or several of the following:
Alert and easily startled
Hot sweats or (the opposite) cold and clammy skin
Radical changes to appetite and digestion
Disturbed or interrupted asleep
Feeling irritable, anger or rage
Super-aware of things and people around them
Becoming extremely distressed when a memory of the event is triggered
Hypervigilance is an instinctive reaction of the human body to alert us to possible dangers.
The sufferer is compelled to avoid anything that may arouse distressing memories, these symptoms include:
Avoiding places near or similar to the event
Little or no memory of the incident
Avoiding any thoughts of the terrible event
Avoiding people or activities that can trigger memories of the event
Loss of interest in activites that were once enjoyed
Feeling detached from people, including family and friends
People may also attempt to numb their feelings by:
Dissociating or zoning out from reality
Increasing their consumption of alcohol, food, caffeine, cigarettes, etc
Over exercising to raise endorphin levels
Avoidance is safety behaviour, preventing a person from feeling distressed or being hurt again.
In an effort to be safe in the future, the brain can replay the traumatic event or events over and over again. This unconscious and therefore seemingly uncontrollable reliving is designed to search for clues as to how to avoid similar shocking events. The trauma survivor may re-experience the event in the form of:
Intrusive images and/or sounds related to the event
Thinking about the event when you don’t mean to.
This symptom group is understood to help the person learn from the past and take that knowledge into the future, so that if something similar happens again they will know how to react. This process is prevented from happening while the person is avoidant or numb to what happened.
Changes in Temperament and Thoughts
Following an incident people may experience a sense of:
Anger or rage
Loss of interest in usual activities
No hope of a happy or pleasant future
These emotions can be very debilitating. Survivors wish a different sequence of events had happened; they create narratives of how they could have affected a different outcome. In reality history is impossible to change, let’s face it, if they could have done things differently they would have. This remorseful thought process is often accompanied by a compulsion to search for answers to questions such as, ‘what if…’; ‘if only…’; ‘I wish …’. This natural process doesn’t change the past, but it does help us learn from the event and know what to do in the future.
If you (or someone close to you) has several of the above symptoms then it’s worth asking for help. Forget the ‘stiff upper-lip’ thing – it’s overrated! Does it really make sense to suffer needlessly? Everyone deserves to feel at ease.
Why Do Accidents And Incidents Affect People Differently?
Responses to traumatic events and severity of symptoms correlates to a person’s interpretation of danger and life threatening circumstances they encountered, the ability to cope, their personality, and proximity to the epicentre of events. Some are able to regain balance relatively quickly by assessing their situation, recalling and initiating pre-trauma training and abilities, while others (around 65%) may experience significant post-event trauma symptoms. The unique nature of people and events means that some people show no apparent affect in the immediate aftermath, reactions being delayed for years and others find themselves avoiding places, situations, support and/or professional help.
Everyone has a unique personality, upbringing and support network, which affects their resilience to events. The human mind is capable of submerging whole or parts of dreadful memories, in these cases people may not be consciously aware of whole or parts of traumatic events; therefore, it outwardly appears that the event or events haven’t affected their everyday lives. Others may be easily startled or triggered by elements in the environment that remind them of the traumatic experience (eg bright lights, sudden noises or moving objects, intimate touch). This is because regions of the brain that store intense emotions have been activated and caused them to seemingly ‘overreact’ to the stimulus (it is important to remember that because the brain can hide traumatic memories they may not know why these things have triggered a reaction).
People with Post Traumatic Stress can find it hard to recall details and describe their experiences; some may withdraw or disassociate from activities or people and find it hard to be ‘present’. Following a traumatic event people naturally adapt and may recover from their experiences, others find their lives have negatively changed forever; with treatment people can learn how to tolerate intense feelings and sensations, speed up the healing process and move on with their lives.
Other Possible Side Effects of Post Traumatic Stress
There is growing evidence that psychological trauma can affect physical health to the extent they create life-style limiting conditions (eg on set of arthritis, chronic back or neck pain, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, lung disease). The physical symptoms are often exacerbated when people endure repeated (or additional) occasions with no time between events for respite and recovery. Recovery – from unpredictable, uncontrollable and devastating terror, panic, fragility and vulnerability – takes time and can be delayed if symptoms prevent the person’s return to normal activities.
What Can I Do To Help Myself?
Know you are a survivor and notice which of the strengths you have today have developed out of hardships you endured earlier on. Write down those strengths and congratulate yourself for coping so well.
Keep yourself safe by not taking unacceptable risks; leave uncomfortable situations before it gets worse; take care of your physical and mental health.
Practice setting boundaries; learn to say no, stop people coercing you into doing things you don’t want to do, never allow others to be verbally, mentally, physically or sexually abusive towards you. Setting and holding boundaries will be harder to achieve with people who have invaded your boundaries in the past, but persevere and trust your intuition, it will know when someone is overstepping your boundaries.
Write in detail about your feelings as they surface – grief, sadness, loss, anger, fear etc and allow yourself time and space to feel them or express them thought art, sculpture, creative writing. Do not try to avoid or cover them up by making yourself busy, using harmful substances, shopping, over-eating or any other avoidance mechanism.
Resume interrupted activities gradually; start by doing the actions you can manage and then each day add a little bit more, over time you will be able to return to those activities.
Seeking Professional Help
Don’t allow your avoidance, guilt or shame stop you from seeking treatment, the therapy you receive will speed up your rate of recovery. You deserve to be happier. If the above symptoms resonate with you, please don’t suffer a moment longer, you can access help by calling me, Dawn Haworth, on 07818 840 841 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
What Sort of Issues have People Brought To Therapy?
Diagnosis of a life threatening illness
Experience of serious accidents and incidents
Life changing illness or injury
Separation or divorce
Sexual, verbal or physical abuse
Suicide of a friend, relative or colleague