If you’ve ever been in an accident, you probably felt shocked, shaky, afraid, angry and/or guilty. Common stress reactions to most traumatic situations.
Everybody has a post-traumatic stress story, says Dr. John Langevin. A Ph.D psychologist, he’s the assistant dean for student support services and director of counseling at the University of New England. He’s also a board certified expert on traumatic stress and spoke at a recent post-traumatic stress seminar I went to that was hosted by Lifeline Center for Workplace Wellness.
The gist of the seminar was that trauma related to military service or a terrible accident or event may be a major cause of post-traumatic stress (PTS), but other seemingly minor things can also cause PTS.
After a bad fall
For example, about five years ago, I was walking down my stairs when I overstepped a bottom tread and pitched forward through an open door. As I sailed through, my head hit the edge of the striker on the door jamb and I landed on the floor in a pool of blood. Fortunately, my daughter was home. Someone else might have fainted at the sight, but she remained calm and got me to an emergency room. I needed 27 stitches in my forehead and scalp.
Several weeks passed before I got up the nerve to go down those stairs again, but I knew it was important to do it. I confess that I am still a bit paranoid about going down any stairs, but it doesn’t stop me. I’m just more cautious.
For some people, the stress following a traumatic event sticks around. They may have flashbacks about what happened or feel physically ill — have headaches or feel nauseous. All normal and pretty common, says Dr. Langevin and most of the time, people are eventually able to move on with their lives.
If someone can’t seem to move on, when the trauma or event they experienced or witnessed was especially horrific, they can develop an anxiety disorder known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not all post-traumatic stress leads to a full-blown anxiety disorder.
Different ways of coping with stress and trauma
We all have different ways of reacting to and coping with stressful or traumatic events. Some people are more sensitive and reactive while others are more resilient. And sometimes it’s difficult to understand or even sympathize with another person’s situation. “The key,” says Dr. Langevin,” is perception. We need to be careful not to project our perception of how others should adapt and realize that we each have our own personal perceptions and history and capacity for resilience.”
Dr. Langevin shared a long list of possible signs of post-traumatic stress — some may last days, weeks, months and occasionally longer depending on the severity of the event.
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Physical signs of post-traumatic stress
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds
Cognitive signs of post-traumatic stress
- Mental slowness
- General negative attitude or thoughts
- Constant worry/anxiety
- Mind racing at times
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty thinking in a logical sequence
- The sense that life in overwhelming and problems can’t be solved
Emotional signs of post-traumatic stress
- No sense of humor
- Jumpiness, over excitability, overwhelming anxiety
- Feeling overworked
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sense of helplessness
Behavioral signs of post-traumatic stress
- Decreased contact with family and friends
- Poor work relations
- Sense of loneliness
- Decreased sex drive
- Avoiding others and being avoided because always seem cranky
- Failing to set aside time for relaxing activities
What can help relieve the stress
You should let your healthcare provider know if you are experiencing symptoms of stress after a traumatic incident.
Understanding and support from employers, co-workers, family and friends can help symptoms of post-traumatic stress pass more quickly says Dr. Langevin. He also recommends learning the practice of mindfulness to relieve symptoms. “It’s a powerful, scientifically proven medicine,” he explains. “Think prayer, concentration, being aware in the moment, right now.”
10 mindfulness tips to relieve stress
- Take a time out
- Eat well-balanced meals
- Limit alcohol and caffeine
- Get enough sleep
- Exercise daily
- Take deep breaths; count to 10 slowly
- Accept that you can’t control everything
- Welcome humor
- Learn you anxiety triggers
- Talk to someone
When symptoms persist, get worse or develop into PTSD, a person may need professional counseling, “This does not imply mental illness or weakness,” says Dr. Langevin, “but simply indicates that this particular event was just too powerful to manage alone.”
Simply being aware that we are all different can help a great deal whether you or someone else is experiencing the stress. We also need to expand our thinking about what trauma is and about the stress that it can cause. “It’s not about what’s wrong with you,” Dr. Langevin says. “It’s about what happened to you.”
If you’d like to learn about post-traumatic stress and its effect on the brain, Dr. Langevin recommends this book:
“The Body Keeps The Score:
Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”
By Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D.
Do you have a post-traumatic stress story? How have you been able to cope?