In this day and age, trauma and crisis seem to be the norm as opposed to the exception. If you watch the nightly news, you will be immediately bombarded by stories of murder, suicide, accidents, terrorist threats, and natural disaster. The news stations will often interview victims, rescue workers, and bystanders to share their experiences. During the interviews, some individuals are tearful and visibly shaken, others appear void of emotion, and others seem to be mildly bothered. Everyone handles and processes traumatic experiences differently, which directly relates to their coping mechanisms, support systems, and personalities. Some individuals may have fleeting difficulties following a traumatic event, but will learn to adjust and recover quickly. However, other individuals will have an extremely difficult time recovering from a traumatic episode and will go on to develop a mental health condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Post Traumatic Stress disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder and is triggered by a traumatic experience. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is characterized by significant anxiety, recurrent thoughts of trauma, flashbacks, trouble sleeping, and nightmares. Symptoms negatively impact a person’s ability to function at home, school, work, or socially.
Signs of Post Traumatic Stress disorder can develop within one month of the trauma, or can remain dormant for quite some time, not appearing for months or years later. The symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can vary in intensity and can be exacerbated during times of high stress.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms are categorized into the following four types:
- Disturbing and Invasive Memories: Individuals may experience recurrent, distressing memories about the trauma, or momentary flashbacks which can make them feel like they are reliving the trauma. A person may have terrifying dreams and nightmares, which disrupt normal sleeping patterns. If a person has been in a severe car accident, they may experience flashbacks or thoughts about the moment of impact, or when the airbag deployed.
- Avoidance Behaviors: People may portray symptoms of avoidance, where they try to avoid discussing or thinking about the trauma. They could even potentially avoid places, situations, or people that remind them of the traumatic experience. In the example of a car accident, a person may refuse to go to the location where the car accident happened. Or, if they visited Starbucks immediately prior to the accident, they may link Starbucks to the accident and avoid setting foot into a Starbucks again.
- Negative Mood Changes: People may begin to think negatively about themselves or others, lack hope about the future, have difficulty maintaining relationships, or become detached from life. Others may show a lack of interest in people or things and fail to find pleasure in activities that they once enjoyed. An individual may struggle with memory problems or experience feelings of emotional numbness. A person recovering from a traumatic car accident may stop socializing with friends, reading, or playing basketball.
- Physical and Emotional Changes: Individuals may show a heightened vigilance, always be on guard, and have trouble concentrating and sleeping. A person may utilize negative mechanisms of coping, such as drinking alcohol, experimenting with drugs, or engaging in risky behaviors. A person may portray anger and irritability, or feel an intense amount of remorse and shame. If the driver in a traumatic car accident injured their passenger, they may experience anger, sadness, or extreme feelings of guilt.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be effectively treated with psychotherapy, medication, or with a combination of both. Talk therapy helps a person to understand and process the trauma, while simultaneously learning how to successfully cope with feelings of anxiety, flashbacks and nightmares, and other symptoms. The most common types of medications prescribed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and sleeping medications.
Nowadays, we do not need to look too long or too hard to find trauma. Sometimes it feels like it is everywhere. Perhaps as a society, we all experience Post Traumatic Stress disorder in varying degrees in one form or another, with daily doses of re-exposure through the nightly news.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.