A traumatic experience produces emotional shock. Sometimes, how the brain stores this shock as a memory also involves intense reactions and physical distress. At times if the information isn’t stored in an efficient way it may lead to changes within the neuro network. Because everyone responds differently to traumatic events, you may have some reactions to a greater degree than others. Some of you may not have any at all.
Feeling an array of emotions and changes to sleep, eating and thought patterns after a trauma are normal. Some people have severe problems immediately after the trauma, some people feel better within a few days or months and others recover more slowly. Others feel fine at first but need help later.
Occupational Stress Injury
Trauma can also be cumulative meaning many incidents pile up over a long period of time due the the nature of one’s employment. This maybe the case for first responders such as police, paramedics, EMS, firefighters, dispatchers, nurses, doctors, active military and veterans
Many of your reactions to trauma are connected to one another. For example, intrusive and rumination thoughts may make you feel out of control and will therefore produce fear and emotional reactivity. Although, these are common reactions to the trauma, it is unfamiliar and distressing, some worry they are "losing it." Because these reactions are intense some people are reluctant to share this with others. These thoughts can make a person more fearful. Support during this time will help to put things in perspective as the mind tries to deal with new and unnavigated information. The symptoms of trauma we experience are a normal response to having encountered abnormal situations. As you process these experiences during treatment, the symptoms should become less distressing.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Becoming aware of the changes to thoughts, reactions and a noticeably reduced ability to cope since your trauma is the first step towards recovery. If your symptoms are severe and prolonged your therapist will refer you for an assessment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Through measurable diagnostic assessments and thorough history taking a Psychologist will tell you definitely if you have PTSD or not. Your family doctor may make the diagnosis or refer you to a specialist to diagnose and prescribe medications. The good news is you can still continue to work with your therapist who will provide treatment to improve daily function and increase your quality of life using evidence based therapies.
Common trauma symptoms
1. Fear and anxiety. This can happen when a person's world view and sense of safety change and become negative as a result of a traumatic experience. Sometimes anxiety may increase without an identifiable cause.
2. Re-experiencing the trauma. These symptoms occur because a traumatic experience is difficult to process and fit into our understanding. Replaying these memories seems to be an attempt to integrate the experience and make more sense of what happened. Flashbacks
3. Hyperarousal. Do you feel jumpy, jittery, and shaky; being easily startled; and having trouble concentrating or sleeping? The arousal reactions are due to the fight or flight response which is how we protect ourselves against danger. People who have been traumatized often see the world as filled with danger, so their bodies are on constant alert, always ready to respond immediately to any attack.
4. Avoidance. Do you take measures to stay away from any reminders of the trauma? Often situations that are less directly related to the trauma are also avoided, such as going out in the evening if the trauma occurred at night. Another way we reduce distress is to try to push away painful thoughts and feelings, but the downside is many pleasant and loving feelings go too.
5. Feelings of anger, irritability, and annoyance. It may be especially confusing to feel angry at those who are closest to you. Sometimes people feel angry because of feeling irritable so often. Anger can also arise from a feeling that the world is not fair or just.
6. Feelings of guilt and shame. Many people blame themselves for things they did or did not do to survive. You may feel ashamed because during the trauma you acted in ways that you would not otherwise have done. You may also blame others for the outcomes.
7. Depression and grief. You may lose interest in people and activities you used to enjoy. You may feel that your plans for the future don't seem to matter anymore or that life isn't worth living. These feelings can lead to thoughts of futility, self harm behaviours and even suicidal ideation.
8. Our self-image and views of the world often become more negative after a trauma. Many people become self-critical and pessimistic after the trauma ("I am a bad person and deserved this.") It is also common to see others more negatively as well and to feel that you can't trust anyone. The trauma may convince you that the world is dangerous.
9. Relationships with others can become tense, and it may be difficult to become intimate with people as your trust decreases. Sexual relationships may also suffer after a traumatic experience.
10. The use of alcohol and/or other drugs is a common maladaptive coping strategy for dealing with traumatic experiences. If your use of alcohol or drugs has increased as a result of your traumatic experience, it can prevent your recovery from PTSD and cause problems of its own.
11. Somatic disturbances: Our bodies remember and hold stress, it is different for everyone where exactly. Generally, the central nervous system, heart, brain, lungs and gut tend to be most activated resulting in a variety of symptoms.
As you process your experiences with your therapist, the trauma symptoms should become less distressing over time. You will receive therapies specific for trauma. You will learn new skills and tools to better cope with your symptoms as you work towards recovery.
It is possible to feel better
-Adapted from Foa, Hembree, Riggs, Rauch, & Franklin (2009).