Traumatic experiences are an unfortunate part of life, and the majority of people will experience some form of trauma from events such as a car accident or natural disaster during their lifetime. While it is normal to feel a wide range of emotions such as fear or anger after such an event, you should always be concerned if those emotions continue for too long or affect your ability to perform your normal daily activities.
The terms trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, are often viewed as having the same meaning by many people. However, there are distinct differences between the two that affect how they are handled by mental health professionals. Understanding these differences helps you or your loved one get help with the emotions following a traumatic experience.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma occurs when you experience a deeply distressing event that affects you psychologically. Although physical harm may be involved, such as when you are in a car accident, you may also be physically unscathed. Simply witnessing a violent act or being the victim of verbal bullying over a long period of time is enough to cause trauma.
Following a traumatic experience, you may feel angry or sad regarding the event. You may also be fearful that it could happen again. For instance, you may be afraid to drive after a car accident. These emotional reactions typically last for a short amount of time until you find ways of coping with them.
Trauma affects everyone differently. While some people experience a volatile reaction, others feel numb or a sense of detachment from the event. This is a common defense mechanism that often occurs after a person is the victim of abuse. It is important to recognize that this reaction may occur following a trauma because it could delay you from seeking treatment. In most cases, the sense of detachment is eventually followed by a flood of emotions that can also be the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
What Is a Traumatic Event?
A traumatic event is any situation that leads you to experience some form of trauma. They can be long-term such as the case of an ongoing child or domestic abuse. You can also experience a single instance of trauma from an event such as witnessing a shooting or having a medical emergency.
Traumatic events can occur in multiple episodes that heighten the effects. Members of the military are often exposed to ongoing trauma that may take many different forms during their service. People living in violent communities may witness crimes or hear distressing news on an ongoing basis, and children in abusive homes may experience recurring instances of verbal and physical abuse that lead to long-term trauma.
Events that normally occur in life can lead to traumatic reactions. Losing a loved one is a traumatic event that is especially stressful if a person witnesses the death or is the first one to discover that it occurred. For this reason, it is important to understand that certain events may be harder for a person to recover from, and you should never tell someone to just get over a loss. It is possible that a person who is struggling through the grieving process may actually be dealing with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
When Does Trauma Turn Into PTSD?
The line between trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder is fine, but there is a difference. According to the Sidran Institute, approximately 70 percent of Americans experience a traumatic event. However, only about 20 percent go on to develop PTSD. In most cases, a person will recover from their traumatic event, or they may only experience one or two of the symptoms. For these people, self-care and short-term therapy are often all that is needed to help them move forward with their lives.
For the other 20 percent who go on to develop PTSD, the situation looks different. Someone who has progressed to having post-traumatic stress disorder typically has symptoms that last longer than a few weeks. They may also experience more severe emotional reactions that limit their ability to live a normal life.
Heightened reactivity is a common experience among people who have progressed to having PTSD. They may seem jumpy or unable to relax in a normal environment. For instance, a military veteran may overreact to a common noise in their environment such as a car door slamming if it causes them to relive the moment that they witnessed an explosion.
The biggest hallmark difference between the two is that someone who is dealing with trauma can normally continue with their daily activities. PTSD, however, generates symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to get the most out of life. Following a traumatic event, a person may not be able to eat or sleep properly. They may also experience symptoms of depression and anxiety that affect their work and relationships.
Are Certain People More at Risk of Developing PTSD?
Everyone is at risk of developing this mental health condition following a traumatic event. However, some people are more susceptible than others. Military veterans are often placed in positions that expose them to violence. Firefighters, police and other emergency personnel are also at risk of developing PTSD due to the events that they witness during the course of a normal day at work.
It should also be noted that women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD. While research is still being done to figure out why this is true, the current belief is that it is linked to a variety of factors. For instance, men and women tend to handle psychological trauma differently.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of PTSD?
Being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of PTSD as soon as possible provides you with the opportunity to seek help early in the beginning stages of the condition. In addition to repeatedly thinking about the traumatic event or having flashbacks, someone who is dealing with post-traumatic stress may exhibit some or all of these symptoms:
- Panic attacks
- Extreme emotional reactions to mild stimulation
- Refusal to talk about the event
- Intense feelings of guilt
- Feelings of isolation as though no one else will understand
Although many of the primary symptoms of PTSD are emotional, people also experience physical signs that they are dealing with psychological distress. Being constantly on guard leads to issues such as muscle soreness and tension in the jaw and head. Headaches, shoulder pain and increased symptoms of TMJ are common among people who deal with post-traumatic stress. Digestive issues are also common with some people experiencing abdominal pain along with diarrhea or constipation. A sense of nausea may occur, especially with panic attacks.
Self-care Strategies for Easing Symptoms
The process of recovering from PTSD takes time. While you work with a professional therapist, you can also take steps to ease the symptoms of trauma at home. Start by making sure you follow the basic practices for healthy living. For example, exercising for 30 minutes each day helps to release endorphins in your body that promote a better mood, and some light stretches can ease the signs of tension in your body.
If post-traumatic stress disorder has led to difficulty sleeping, then you can practice proper sleep hygiene to increase your chances of getting a good night’s rest. Try spending the last hour before bedtime doing relaxing activities that take your mind off what worries you. Taking a warm bath or reading an uplifting story will help you sleep better than watching a movie that contains acts of violence.
Journaling is another activity that many people find helps to ease their symptoms of trauma. You can choose to write in your journal about the actual traumatic event to get it out of your mind, or you could choose to focus on writing about the positive changes that occur in your life as you focus on healing. Your journal should feel as though it is your distinctly personal place to write your private thoughts. Although, some people choose to share a few of their entries with their therapist as a springboard for discussions.
As you begin to heal, you can choose to use your skills and experiences to help others. Many people who are exposed to trauma find that volunteering helps them to renew their positive perspective on life by allowing them to contribute to a better community. Depending upon where you are in your journey, you may choose to volunteer with people who experienced similar traumas, or you may decide to pursue a completely different line of work. Either way, stepping out and giving back to the community allows you to see just how much progress you are making toward healing.
Importance of Professional Treatment
Self-care practices go a long way toward helping to ease the symptoms that interfere with your normal daily functioning. However, you also need professional treatment to fully address how PTSD affects your life. Ongoing PTSD symptoms that go untreated can lead to a variety of issues that only exacerbate the situation.
Unfortunately, many people attempt to mask their feelings after a traumatic event by turning to drugs or alcohol. This is one of the reasons why substance use disorders are common among military veterans and survivors of abuse. Professional treatment puts you in touch with counselors and therapists who can show you how to manage your flashbacks and panic attacks without turning to drugs or alcohol. If you already have a substance use disorder, then it is possible to treat both issues at the same time.
Over time, post-traumatic stress can also wreak havoc on your relationships if it goes untreated. Lashing out at your partner or being unable to handle your daily responsibilities eventually wears down your relationships. Family therapy is an option that you can also use to heal the effects of your past traumatic experiences on your current relationships.
Types of Effective Treatment Options
The good news is that there are several different types of treatment options for helping you heal from traumatic events from your past. However, you do need to keep in mind that healing takes time, and most people discover that this is an ongoing process that can span months or years. Fortunately, you should start to notice a difference in how you feel after several sessions of therapy, even if you need long-term treatment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most common types of treatment that you may be offered. With this type of treatment, you learn how to look at each of your thoughts rationally so that you can calm your anxiety. During your therapy sessions, you will learn techniques that allow you to eventually change how you think about specific situations.
Exposure or desensitization therapy is another option that you may try. With this type of therapy, you may be asked to experience similar situations that remind you of the traumatic event. For example, you may progress from standing near a car to sitting in the passenger’s seat and eventually getting behind the wheel if your PTSD has caused you to stop driving.
Mindfulness training is another method that is often used alongside other forms of therapy. Learning how to train your mind to focus on only the present moment gives you the ability to become free from ruminating on the past.
Medication may also be used in conjunction with other forms of therapy, and the type you need varies according to what needs to be treated. For some people, a mild sedative helps to ease issues with insomnia while other people may need an antidepressant to help them cope with severe feelings of sadness.
When basic trauma progresses to PTSD, it helps to know that there is a wide range of support available to help you regain control over your thoughts and emotions. Although healing does involve a journey, it is possible to eventually find that your past no longer rules how you respond to your present experiences.