What is traumatic stress?
Traumatic stress and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are unique mental health problems in that they have a known cause – a traumatic event. Life is filled with stressors. There are typical daily stressors such as a car breaking down or a large bill to pay. There are also bigger stressors such as getting divorced, losing your job, or the death of a grandparent. Even positive events can be stressful including buying a home or getting married. However, none of these positive or negative daily stressors are considered traumatic events.
Traumatic events are different in that they are events in which someone believes that their life or the life of others is being threatened. Traumatic events can be witnessed, such as watching a friend get mugged, or experienced directly, such as being sexually assaulted, fighting in a war, experiencing a serious accident or natural disaster, or being abused as a child. These are the types of traumatic events that can lead to PTSD.
How common are traumatic events?
Unfortunately, traumatic events are common. Statistics from the National Center for PTSD show that more than 60% of men and 50% of women have had at least one traumatic event in their lives. This means that most people have experienced a traumatic event at some point. However, among the people who have experienced a traumatic event, most do not develop PTSD. While about 7% of people develop PTSD in their lifetime, this is actually a substantial number, representing 1 out of every 15 people. So, it is likely that your or someone you know may have experienced PTSD at some point.
What happens after a traumatic event?
After people experience a traumatic event, it is useful to have a strong reaction. Remembering what was dangerous and staying away from that can help you stay safe after a traumatic event. However, once that threat has been removed, it is healthiest for our brains and bodies, if our strong reactions decrease to pre-trauma levels. For most people, this happens within about a month after a traumatic event. But, for people with traumatic stress and PTSD, these strong reactions do not disappear and they start negatively impacting daily life. In fact, if the traumatic stress or PTSD symptoms do not return to pre-trauma levels within a year, it is highly unlikely that they will go away without evidence-based treatment from a professional.
How do I know if I have PTSD?
If you have experienced a traumatic event and are having difficulty in areas of your life or find that you are coping with behaviors that are unhealthy, such has drinking heavily or drug use, self-injury, significant changes in eating or sleeping, or other high-risk activities, you may have PTSD.
To diagnose PTSD, individuals need to consult with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD include experiencing a traumatic event and having specific symptoms that cause significant distress or impairment for more than one month including:
1) intrusion of traumatic memories or uncontrollable reminders of traumatic events
2) avoidance of safe people, places, activities, or behaviors that are in some way associated with the traumatic event
3) negative changes in thinking or mood
4) alterations in arousal or reactivity, which include feeling numb, also called dissociation, or feeling on edge, also called hyperarousal
What should I do if I think I have traumatic stress or PTSD?
It is not a good idea to “self-diagnose” if you think you have PTSD. Self-diagnosis can lead to increase in trauma symptoms and other problematic behaviors. The best course of action if you think you may have PTSD is to seek an evaluation from a licensed mental health professional who specializes in treating traumatic stress and PTSD.
How can I get help for traumatic stress or PTSD?
The Chrysalis Center for Counseling offers compressive treatment for traumatic stress, PTSD, and many co-occurring problems. At Chrysalis we have licensed professionals, who used evidence-based treatments to decrease trauma symptoms and help people live their best lives following trauma.
Future blog posts will describe the specific evidence-based traumatic stress and PTSD treatments offered at Chrysalis. However, you can call at any time to hear about these treatments and to schedule a time to talk with one of our licensed professionals.
You can also find out more about evidence-based treatment for PTSD at the National Center for PTSD: www.ptsd.va.gov. This site has useful posts and videos on PTSD treatment, including many of the treatments we offer at Chrysalis.
Dr. Kate Brody Nooner is a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at UNCW. She also holds an adjunct appointment at Duke University and is the principal investigator of NIH-funded grants aimed at reducing child and adolescent trauma and preventing alcoholism.