Traumatic stress generally occurs when a person has experienced or witnessed a life event (or an ongoing life situation) that is life-threatening, dangerous or otherwise overwhelming. Many people who have survived a natural disaster, a serious accident or a physical attack will experience traumatic stress, as can those who are living in an abusive relationship or struggling with a life-threatening illness.
What determines whether or not an event is traumatic is not the event itself, but the individual’s response to it. Any situation which has caused you to feel overwhelmed, powerless and isolated can be experienced as traumatic, even if nobody was physically harmed. Some people will experience the breakup of a significant relationship as traumatic, for example.
An event is most likely to be experienced as traumatic if:
- It came completely out of the blue;
- You felt powerless to do anything to prevent or change it;
- It kept on happening;
- Someone treated you badly;
- It happened in childhood
Symptoms of traumatic stress
A person who has been traumatised may experience some or all of the following:
- Constantly thinking about the event even when they don’t intend to;
- Re-experiencing the feelings and body sensations of the event (with or without an actual memory of the event);
- Avoiding situations, places, people or subjects of conversation which remind them of the event;
- Having nightmares of the event, or which resemble aspects of the event;
- Feeling on guard, expecting danger or reacting differently from others to certain events or people;
- Dissociating or distracting themselves from intense feelings, perhaps through drug or alcohol use, self-harming or just by “numbing out”;
- A difficulty in trusting others and / or the world in general;
- Existential questions: “What’s the point?”, “What is life all about?”, “Why is there so much suffering?”
It is normal to experience the above symptoms immediately after experiencing a trauma, and they will usually resolve by themselves, over time. However, if they persist for longer than a few weeks, they can seriously disrupt your ability to engage in and cope with normal life. It is possible for the effects of trauma to persist for many years after the precipitating event. It may be that you no longer even think about the original event, yet still experience trauma symptoms when triggered by a new event that is similar in some way to the original event.
If you believe you are still suffering the effects of past trauma, you might want to consider a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR can be very effective in reducing or even eliminating your trauma symptoms. It can help you to rapidly process the distressing memory or memories, dramatically reducing their influence in the present, and allowing you to find more adaptive ways of coping.
Counselling can also help you to resolve trauma symptoms, by providing a safe space in which you can gently and gradually integrate the trauma into your experience, so that it feels processed and in the past.
You can read more about trauma and EMDR at my Trauma Counselling website.