What is “Traumatic Stress” and What Can I Do About It?
There is a lot of press these days on the effects of ‘stress’ and healthy ways to manage the stress in our lives. Understanding how stress is defined will help us take steps to manage it properly. Everyone has stress in his or her lives. The good stress is called “Eustress,” which is when we challenge ourselves in positive ways. Such as, learning something new, or pushing our bodies during exercise. Eustress is the physiological and psychological changes that occur from positive emotions and experiences. Maintaining a certain level of Eustress enhances optimal performance and health.
Too much of a good thing can cause damage! Too much stress on the mind and body can create an overload, and lead to damaging mental and physical breakdown. This is called “Distress.” For example, overtraining in a sport, can cause levels of fatigue where only rest can restore the body. Over working for an extended period of time, can cause a person to feel pessimistic, deflated, frustrated, unmotivated, and burned out.
“Traumatic Stress” is when you have experienced or witnessed a terrible experienced. Whether you are involved in the awful and unusual incident, or it happened to a family member or friend, you are experiencing very emotional stress, way beyond what you are expected to cope with in your normal every day life. The reactions you may experience are normal responses to a highly abnormal experience. You are not going crazy, or losing your mind, even though it can feel like it. Difficult physical and/or emotional reactions to this highly stressful event can be confusing and troubling. It is important to understand what these normal reactions are and how to manage them, to be able to move through the traumatic experience in the best way possible.
No one gets through life without experiencing some traumatic stress. To name a few examples- job loss, car accidents, medical crisis, divorce, death of a loved one, financial or work crisis, rape or assault, robbery, or suicide of a friend. The way we move through these life experiences can build us up, strengthening our resilience in life, or it can break us down, reducing our quality of life.
What are common stress responses?
Physical changes may include fatigue, headaches, heartburn, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, loss of appetite, increased appetite, muscle tightness, or trembling, tearfulness, irritability, and shortness of breath.
Emotional and mental responses include confusion, anxiety, fear, denial or numbness, feelings of despair, depression, anger, outrage, grief, withdrawal, and feelings of helplessness. Difficulty concentrating, visual or auditory flashbacks of the event, intrusive thoughts where you think about it when you don’t want to, and it is hard to let it go.
When will I feel these things and how long will they last?
Any and all of these responses can happen immediately, and over time they will change in intensity, frequency, duration, and character. It can seem like a roller coaster of ups and downs. This is how the mind and body attempts to resolve and store this new and unusual experience.
The time it takes for physical and emotional stress wounds to heal, can vary from one person to the next. Sort of like a cold or the flu, traumatic stress reactions must run their course. Acknowledge to yourself and others, that you have been through, and may still be going through, an extremely stressful experience, and know these reactions are normal and will ease in time.
What can I do to feel better?
As time goes on, your reactions will subside. There may be ongoing ups and downs, as your life settles back into some sense of new normal. We are never quite the same after having been through a traumatic life experience, however we can bring meaning to what we have learned from it all, in time. What you do with the time of healing is important in building healthy resilience.
Talk to others about your experiences. You will have times of needing to be alone and quiet, but don’t isolate too much. You can reach out to loved ones, peers, clergy, or a counselor. Basically, anyone who cares and is a good listener. Talking with others helps us move forward. You may even want to talk to others who have been through something similar. In these days of social media, you can often find a chat group or Facebook group that is specific to your type of traumatic experience. Go ahead and look them up. First listen and read, you don’t need to participate if you don’t want to, however, hearing how others are getting through can be comforting and enlightening, and you will find you don’t feel so alone.
Get back to the basics…Eat well, if you don’t feel like eating, snack on healthy options throughout the day. Exercise gently, you may be more tired than you realize. Your body still needs to move and stretch. Do something everyday to relieve the tension and stress in the body. Walking is great! Drink LOTS of water to help rehydrate the stressed system. Avoid the over use of stimulants (coffee, chocolate, nicotine) or depressants, like alcohol or sleeping pills. These chemicals may give you some quick relief, but can interfere with your recovery. Your body and mind knows how to restore itself, give it the time and space to do that with the healthiest options. Have a good cry, let it rip! Crying is our natural relief valve! It is a healthy response! You will feel better, one you let all that energy out.
Gravitate towards what is calming and soothing…walking in nature, music, essential oils that promote a sense of calm (lavender, citrus, these oils can be placed on your wrist, in your bath or anywhere that makes it easy for you to access them), watching a comedy – it really is ok to maintain a sense of humor when recovering from traumatic experiences.
Slow down! Doing a bit less for a while, allows your brain and body to use energy to heal and re-organize the internal thoughts, feelings, and pictures.
Do not compare yourself to anyone else! Each person’s experience is unique and personal. Focus on what you need for yourself, let others do the same. Most traumatic experiences we have not been through before, because they are all different. You can’t possibly know how to get through it, you learn as you go. Go easy on yourself and others, be encouraging, don’t judge or criticize yourself or others.
What if I start to feel worse over time, not better?
Sometimes the intensity of your reactions may increase, or a reaction may seem very prolonged, or you feel stuck in it. This does not mean you are weak or going ‘crazy.’ It simply means that the event was so powerful to your system; it pushed you past your normal coping skills. If things continue to worsen, despite efforts mentioned above, please seek help. Seeking help is a step of courage and strength. A professional counselor can effectively provide additional steps and resources to help you get unstuck, and jump start you back to your innate healing process.
If you have any questions please call us at (760) 942-8663 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to talk with you more.
Sara Gilman, PsyD, LMFT
CEO, Founder, President
Coherence Associates Inc.