Managing symptoms after a traumatic event is important. The body experiences a physical response to stress brought by trauma and can become trapped in a danger-response mode without treatment.
Trauma’s Physical Symptoms
A person may experience trauma in a split-second during a natural disaster or over time from repeated episodes of child abuse or domestic abuse. While there are many ways a person may be traumatized, the physical reactions going on in the body are the same. During a traumatic event, a person’s nervous system responds by flooding the body with hormones to create the flight-or-fight response.
These responses are controlled by the limbic system, which is in in the center of the brain between the brain stem (the reptilian brain) and the cerebral cortex (the brain area controlling decisions and memory) according to University of Michigan resources for sexual assault victims. During a response to stress, the body responds with heightened senses to respond to the threat such as a better sense of smell and hearing and stronger physical ability. At the same time, the body experiences these enhanced senses, the brain is primed to remember the event intensely. This physical and mental reaction sets a person up to relive trauma when he or she smells a certain smell or hears a certain sound.
People who experience stress repeatedly may be flooded with stress hormones such as cortisol on a regular basis. They also are more likely to experience a stress response even when they are not in danger.
Trauma’s Emotional Symptoms
Immediately after a traumatic episode, a person may feel both denial and shock (a sudden intense feeling of being stunned or dazed) according to the American Psychological Association (APA). After the initial feelings of shock pass, a person experiences more long-term emotions that may include the following according to the APA:
- Intense and unpredictable feelings such as anxiousness, nervousness or irritability
- Altered thoughts and behavior patterns that include vivid memories or flashbacks
- Recurring emotions such as event anniversaries that bring back uncomfortable memories
- Challenging relationships with family and friends, often brought on by being stressed or withdrawn
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea and chest pain
For some people, these experiences lead to severe reactions that last for several months or years and affect daily life. A severe reaction to stress is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Understanding Trauma Symptoms
The emotional and physical responses a person has when living with PTSD may seem unrelated to current events. Because a person’s body is easily flooded with stress hormones, he may be in a state of shock or recovering from shock many times a week or month. It’s common for PTSD sufferers to regularly experience depression, guilt, suicidal thoughts and anger and aggressive behavior according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The National Center for PTSD recommends using a variety of techniques to cope with the stress produced by the disorder. One of the most effective ways individuals can manage mood shifts and other reactions to stress is by taking control of the emotions. The center offers the following techniques for managing emotional reactions:
- Be familiar with common reactions to trauma. This process helps people know when to seek treatment and helps them understand how to help fellow trauma sufferers.
- Reach out to supportive people and explain the best ways to offer help. Different people have different needs. Some benefit from talking about fears associated with the traumatic event.
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques such as breathing and muscle relaxation exercises, swimming, stretching and yoga and meditation.
- Find enjoyable hobbies, such as art, as a way to distract and unwind from stress.
- Walk away from stressful situations, or take a time out to process emotions before responding to a situation.
- Remember that many emotional reactions are normal and will soon pass.
While these techniques may not be intuitive at first, they become more effective with time and practice. Once a person understands the origin of his feelings, he’s better able to see them as remnants of the past and control his current response to them.
Need Help Finding Mental Health Treatment?
Mental health disorders require multi-layered treatments. If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD or other trauma symptoms, there are many effective options to cope with the disorder. Whether you need a longer-term residential stay or outpatient treatment, we offer treatments that address your individual needs. Our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to offer options for effective treatment.
New research offers more effective treatments for PTSD every year. People who seek help learn skills that improve day-to-day life and enrich their relationships. Call our toll-free helpline today, and start on the path to a better life.