What is Post-Trauma?
When a person is exposed to a traumatic event, the internal coping system is often overwhelmed by stimuli that it cannot contain or process. Often we are flooded with feelings of helplessness and terror which triggers our emergency response of “fight, flight or freeze.” Regardless of how we respond to the danger in front of us, the mental and physical imprint of the traumatic experience do not always disappear once the danger has passed. In some cases it instead stays with us and we continue to experience all the same unprocessed emotional and physical sensations associated with the original event over and over again. Images, smells, memories, noises that were present at the time of the trauma return to haunt the surviving individual. Because of the pain of reliving the trauma, a common response and coping technique is to avoid any person, place, or thing that might serve as a reminder of the original experience. This creates a pattern of “intrusions” on one end, and avoidance behaviors on the other – a circle of behavior which is at the core of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
However PTSD does not indicate weakness – the opposite, they are in fact normal reactions to an abnormal situation. Every person has their own individual limit of what they can cope with, and most people who have been exposed to a traumatic event that is severe enough will develop symptoms.
The 3 Main Symptoms of Post-Trauma:
- Intrusions: People who have experienced a trauma often report intrusive symptoms which make them feel as though they are experiencing the trauma all over again in the present. Such intrusions can be sudden smells, flashbacks and nightmares about the event/s, feelings or physical sensations, visual stimulus and thoughts.
- Avoidance Behaviors: Because all of the intrusions are directly related to the trauma a person survived, they continue to feel as though they are in a state of ongoing danger. They will therefore often protect themselves by avoiding anything that reminds them of the traumatic event/s or anything they perceive as being a potential threat. This might include avoiding places, activities, physical things or people who remind them of their trauma, avoiding speaking or thinking about the traumatic event or difficulty in remembering the details of it, refraining from strong emotions in general, and a sense of strangeness and detachment from others. Avoidance gives a person the illusion of safety, and although it may be useful in the short term, done consitantly over time it will begin to deeply impact the quality of a person’s life.
- Hyperarousal/hypervigilance: A traumatic experience seriously damages the belief that the world is a good and safe place, that other people are good, safe to be around, and worthy of trust, and the overall idea of “it won’t happen to me.” A person instead feels that danger is lurking in every corner and that they must be alert and prepared at all times for attack. The constant readiness to respond causes a physiological arousal and mental strain which would not have characterised the individual before and which impair their ability to concentrate. Such hyperarousal might be expressed in difficulting sleeping, anger, irritability or tantrums, difficulty concentrating, a highly sensitive startle or jump response to sudden noises or physical contact with others.
Psychological trauma is treatable, however the longer a person waits to get professional help the more likely it is that their symptoms will become chronic. A common rule of thumb is to seek help if symptoms continue beyond 30 days after the experience of a traumatic event.