When you experience a threatening or traumatic event, your nervous system responds by triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response. After the danger passes, your body usually returns to normal. But if the upset doesn’t fade and you feel stuck with painful memories and a constant sense of vulnerability, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As upsetting and debilitating as PTSD can be, it’s important to realise that you’re not helpless. There are plenty of things you can do to alleviate your PTSD symptoms, reduce anxiety and fear, and take back control of your life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following any event that makes you fear for your safety. Most people associate PTSD with rape or battle-scarred soldier – and military combat is the most common cause in men – but any event, or series of events, that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and leaves you emotionally shattered can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.
PTSD can affect people who personally experience the threatening event, those who witness the event, or those who pick up the pieces afterwards, such as emergency workers. PTSD can also result from surgery performed on children too young to fully understand what’s happening to them.
- Natural disasters
- Car or plane crashes
- Terrorist attacks
- Sudden death of a loved one
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Childhood neglect
PTSD develops differently from person to person because everyone’s nervous system and tolerance for stress is a little different. While you’re most likely to develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear.
You may experience upsetting memories, flashbacks, and nightmares, as well as feelings of distress or intense physical reactions when reminded of the event (sweating, pounding heart, nausea, for example).
You may try to avoid activities, places or thoughts that remind you of the trauma or be unable to remember important aspects of the event. You may feel detached from others and emotionally numb, or lose interest in activities and life in general, sensing only a limited future for yourself.
You may experience trouble sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, have difficulty concentrating, easily startled, and feel hypervigilant (on constant “red alert”).
Other common symptoms include:
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
- Depression or hopelessness, including suicidal thoughts and feelings
- Substance abuse
- Physical aches and pains
In children, especially very young children the symptoms of PTSD can be different from adults and may include:
- Fear of being separated from parent
- Losing some of their previously acquired skills (such as toilet training)
- Sleep problems and nightmares
- Somber compulsive play in which themes or aspects of the trauma are repeated
- New phobias and anxieties, unrelated to the trauma (fear of monsters)
- Acting out through play, stories or drawings
- Aches and pains with no apparent cause
- Irritability and aggression