All human beings experience intense stress following an event that involved serious injury or death (actual or threatened) or that involved witnessing others in such a situation. Normal stress reactions may include:
- a constant state of anxiety
- emotional numbness
- irritability or anger
- being easily startled
- trouble concentrating
- trouble eating (or eating too much)
- trouble sleeping
- a desire for isolation
- constantly thinking about the event OR constantly trying to avoid thinking about the event
- feeling helpless
- feeling overwhelmed
Normal stress reactions generally decrease as time passes. If you experienced a traumatic event more than a month ago and are still experiencing these things, however, you may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Many types of traumatic events can result in PTSD: military combat, sexual assault, serious accidents (automobile, airplane, etc.), serious physical assault, childhood sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters (fire, tornado, hurricane, flood, or earthquake). Not everyone who experiences one of these events will develop PTSD, however; whether or not you develop PTSD depends on many things including:
- how intense the trauma was (or how long it lasted)
- the type and severity of injury sustained or threatened
- how much you felt in control (or how much you felt a lack of control) during the event
- the type and extent of support that you received immediately after the event
Only a trained mental health professional can determine whether or not you have PTSD. Regardless of the clinical name for what you are experiencing, however, if you are suffering, help is available. If you have experienced a traumatic event and are having trouble dealing with it – if you simply cannot stop thinking about it, if you cannot “shake” the emotional impact of it, if you continue to live in fear, or if your life seems to be “on hold” or “stuck” because of the event — counseling can help. Your caring, professional counselor can help you learn to manage and minimize the stress reaction, can provide a safe, nonjudgmental environment for you to talk about what happened, and can help you “process” the trauma and break free from the emotional or psychological hold that the event has on you and on your life.
Whatever traumatic experience(s) you have had in your life, the experience does not have to define, control, or ruin your life. There is help and there is hope.