Traumatic stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Usually, symptoms get better with time, but people with more intense symptoms may need professional help.
Over the course of a lifetime, it’s common to be exposed to a traumatic event, whether it is a violent act, a serious injury, a sexual violation, or other shocking event. In response, many will experience traumatic stress—a normal reaction to an abnormal event. People may even experience traumatic stress by just witnessing a highly distressing event or having a close family member or friend experience such an event.
In the days and weeks following such a trauma, it’s common for people to have a flurry of unpredictable emotions and physical symptoms. They include:
- Feeling nervous, jumpy, or on high alert
- Irritability or anger
- Difficulty sleeping
- Relationship problems
- Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares
- Trouble feeling positive emotions
- Avoiding people, places, memories, or thoughts associated with the traumatic event
Usually, these symptoms get better with time. But for some people, more intense symptoms linger or interfere with their daily lives and do not go away on their own. Some people may develop acute stress disorder in which they have extreme symptoms of stress that significantly interfere with daily life, school, work or social functioning in the month after a traumatic event. Others can develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with symptoms that interfere with daily life and last for more than a month after the trauma.
Coping with traumatic stress
The good news is that there are very effective ways to cope with and treat the stressful effects of trauma. Psychologists and other researchers have found that these actions can help:
- Lean on your loved ones. Identify friends or family members for support. If you feel ready to discuss the traumatic event, you might talk to them about your experience and your feelings. You can also ask loved ones to help you with household tasks or other obligations to relieve some of your daily stress.
- Face your feelings. It’s normal to want to avoid thinking about a traumatic event. But not leaving the house, sleeping all the time, isolating yourself from loved ones, and using substances to escape reminders are not healthy ways to cope over time. Though avoidance is normal, too much of it can prolong your stress and keep you from healing. Gradually, try to ease back into a normal routine. Support from loved ones or a mental health professional can help a lot as you get back in the groove.
- Prioritize self-care. Do your best to eat nutritious meals, get regular physical activity, and get a good night’s sleep. And seek out other healthy coping strategies such as art, music, meditation, relaxation, and spending time in nature.
- Be patient. Remember that it’s normal to have a strong reaction to a distressing event. Take things one day at a time as you recover. As the days pass, your symptoms should start to gradually improve.
When to seek help
Not everyone requires treatment for traumatic stress. Most people recover on their own with time. However, mental health professionals such as psychologists can help you find healthy ways to cope in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
If your distress is interfering with your relationships, work, or daily functioning, you may have acute stress disorder or PTSD.
Treatments for traumatic stress
Psychologists can provide evidence-based interventions to help you cope with traumatic stress or acute stress disorder.
One is Psychological First Aid (PFA), originally designed to help children, adolescents, adults, and families in the aftermath of a disaster or terrorism. It’s now used to help people who have experienced any type of trauma. PFA is based on the idea that distress is normal after a traumatic event. Rather than treat that stress like a disorder, the focus of this approach is to provide support and assistance and share information about stress reactions and coping strategies. Mental health providers and disaster response workers provide PFA in the days and weeks after a trauma, in diverse settings including hospitals, housing shelters, community settings, and even over telephone crisis hotlines. The goal of PFA is to reduce distress and improve coping and functioning, both short-term and long-term.
Another evidence-based treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which is successfully used to treat many psychological disorders, including traumatic stress. CBT is a psychological treatment that helps people learn to change unhelpful thinking and behavioral patterns. The World Health Organization recommends trauma-focused CBT to treat symptoms of acute traumatic stress in adults. Some research also suggests that people who receive trauma-focused CBT may be less likely to develop chronic PTSD.
In addition, a variety of treatments have been developed to help children and adolescents who have been exposed to trauma or adverse childhood events such as neglect or abuse. Many of these therapies are family-based and include the child’s parents or caregivers in the treatment process.
If you or a loved one is struggling to recover from a traumatic event, a psychologist can help.
American Psychological Association. (2017). PTSD treatment: Information for patients and families. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families
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National Center for PTSD. Acute stress disorder. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/acute_stress.asp
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The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Trauma treatments. http://www.nctsn.org/treatments-and-practices/trauma-treatments
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. What is child traumatic stress? http://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/what_is_child_traumatic_stress.pdf
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