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Understanding PTSD and Trauma

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a mental health condition caused by virtually any kind of deep emotional trauma – especially one that’s unexpected. PTSD brings about both emotional and physical suffering. People experiencing PTSD usually feel shattered and torn apart, like they will never feel “normal” again. For a survivor, PTSD can make them feel different from everyone else, changed forever, or create questions about ones emotional and mental stability. Trauma informed psychologists and counselors have experience in working collaboratively with trauma survivors to address PTSD.

Some common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Emotional “numbness” and withdrawal – This is a natural coping and protective mechanism that is sometimes referred to as dissociation. Survivors sometimes go into this mode when they don’t feel that others will understand or connect with what they are experiencing.
  • Trouble sleeping – Dreams, nightmares, and insomnia are frequent following trauma.
  • Anger and mood swings – A full range of emotions – including anger – can surface after experiencing a trauma.
  • Flashbacks and “triggers” – During the healing process, as someone re-engages in life, certain sounds, smells, situations, images, or stories can act as “triggers” that can reawaken the memory of the traumatic experience. Flashbacks can instantly open the flood gates to a potentially overwhelming emotional experience and that can be frightening and paralyzing. Identifying triggers may be helpful in managing or avoiding them. In the likely event that you experience a flashback, focusing on where you are and what you need to do to feel safe in that moment can help to disrupt the flashback or at least minimize the suffering it causes. Painful reminders of the violence you survived may also come through associations with people, particular circumstances, or certain places. Healing may require putting distance between yourself and uncomfortable reminders – even if just for a while. A time may come to reconnect with certain individuals or revisit places or situations, but in the short-term it is best to find peaceful, safe avenues to pursue the healing process.
  • Secondary wounding – While interacting with people who lack understanding can be very frustrating, the vulnerability and hypersensitivity that survivors may experience can make even casual interactions painful and damaging. People may ask insensitive or redundant questions. Those who have never experienced the nightmare of violence may not relate. They may unintentionally inflict secondary wounding by asking for details at inappropriate times or offering misguided and oversimplified assurances such as “just get over it” or “put it behind you.” Explain to others what you are going through, and if they say something that isn’t helpful, let them know and try to explain why. Look for supportive peers who can relate and validate your pursuit of healing.
  • Depression – Depression feels like a heavy, dark, and sometimes endless cloud hovering over you. Survivors experiencing depression may feel exhausted, tired, and sad. It can stifle any longing to engage with others or even to get out of bed or eat. In its worst form, depression can induce feelings of intense hopelessness and suicidal thinking. It is crucial to remember that there is hope, help, and healing. Don’t be afraid to seek out the trauma informed help of a psychologist or counselor.
  • Loss of interest in physical and sexual intimacy – Lost interest in physical and sexual connections with others is also common following trauma, especially for those who have experienced sexual violence. It takes time and patience to rekindle an interest in romance and intimate connection, and this can be stressful on relationships with significant others. It is important to talk with your partner about what you are going through so that he or she can try to understand and be supportive in giving you the space and support you need to heal.
  • Decreased ability to trust – Learning to trust again can be difficult. After a violent encounter or trauma, it’s not uncommon for victims to feel as if they can no longer give some people, especially those they don’t know very well, the benefit of the doubt. Time and experience can be a great way to let genuine trust form and, in the meantime, it’s alright to feel protective and cautious.
  • Grief – For some, part of the healing process involves grieving the life you had and the person you were before you encountered violence. Mourning your personal loss is completely normal – a lot has been taken from you. Time and healing will lessen this feeling.
  • Lowered self esteem – Following violence, victims may sometimes reflect on what could have done differently to avoid being victimized, if they were in some way responsible for what took place, whether others can see how they were violated, and whether friends and family can notice the changes taking place within them as a result of the violent trauma. Being stuck in this kind of thinking can negatively impact your self esteem and create self-doubt. Focusing energy on healing, progress, and other positive pursuits will help to keep self esteem in a healthy place.
  • Faltering faith – While some may say “a guardian angel must have been watching over you to keep you alive,” many survivors wonder how God could have let such a horrible crime happen in the first place. Questioning faith and belief systems is also very common among survivors of violence and trauma. Finding a trusted friend or counselor to discuss faith issues with – someone who will not make judgments about what you should or should not believe or deliver patronizing answers to silence you – will help to consider how events may have affected your spiritual life.
  • Pursuit of safety measures – Many survivors feel that they need to take additional steps, such as purchasing security devices or weapons, or creating new living arrangements, to make their homes and lives safe. While some such measures can increase safety and security, staying alert and aware of your surroundings is probably the single best safety measure. Creating safety plans and connections with friends and family can also provide a safety net of check-ins and support.
  • Hypervigilance – Sleepless nights where you have to get up and “do something?” Having a hard time sitting still? This could be an episode of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is a natural response to danger. In a hypervigilant state, the mind and body want to stay alert to any possible threats, real or imagined. Focused activity may provide a greater feeling of control and safety – and prevent hypervigilance.
  • Presenteeism: difficulties focusing at work and school – After a traumatic experience, it may be difficult to focus at work, school, or to participate in social events. It takes time to heal and understand what happened and survivors not be equipped to manage a full schedule – at least not right away. Taking some time off or limiting schedule may be helpful. Also, talking with a human resources manager or school counselor to explain what is going on may help protect employment or grades. Healing takes time and requires energy.
  • Using alcohol or other drugs as a release or escape – The stress and anxiety following a violent incident can be very difficult to sustain, especially over long periods of time, and survivors may turn to substances as a means to relax and obtain a sense of some short-term relief from PTSD. Alcohol and drugs tend to numb reality, which can complicate the healing process. Substances don’t take away the source of our pain or anxiety, but rather temporarily mask feelings. Looking for resources that will build strength would be better options that substances that can lead to addiction, particularly when used in a time of vulnerability as a coping tool.
  • Exaggerated startle response – Feeling “on edge” or “jumpy” can be signs of post-trauma startle response. As a new sense of safety is established and the healing process begins, these feelings should lessen and eventually go away.

Healthy Strategies after Trauma and Violence

  • Talk about thoughts and feelings with a trusted person who will listen and be supportive.
  • Exercise is a good way to take care, while strengthen the body.
  • Use relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep-breathing, or listening to music.
  • Turn your negative experience into something positive: write, volunteer, advocate, mentor, or donate.

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