PTSD: Recognize the Signs and Learn How to Overcome It
Symptoms of traumatic stress and PTSD can often creep up gradually over time. We may not recognize them as signs of PTSD. We may try to stay strong for family or friends. Or numb the pain.
What is Trauma?
When we undergo something negative, our brains make an adaptive connection to explanatory information to help us turn the experience into something more positive, like a learning experience.
This adaptive process is what enables us to“get over” or “work through” our feelings.
But when an experience is extremely negative for us, our brains are unable to process those extreme sensations in this healthy, adaptive way. This is what we call being traumatized.
Sometimes people are shy about applying the word “trauma” to their own situations, thinking this is a term better applied to combat veterans or victims of sexual assault.
While an unfortunately high percentage of our veterans experience trauma and the resulting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the misfortunes of others does not mean that your feelings are invalid.
What is the Definition of Trauma?
Any experience that makes you to feel alone, afraid, or lacking control can be called traumatic.
PTSD is what happens when those feelings don’t fade after the stressful event.
It may not even be an event that you personally experienced, it may be something you witnessed or are dealing with because you had someone close to you experience a traumatic event.
Signs of PTSD can develop after a traumatic experience. Here are some examples:
- Abuse or neglect
- Natural disaster
- Long-term care of a sick family member
- Repeated medical procedures (particularly as a child)
- War or violence
- Physical attack
- Emotional abuse
- Unexpected loss
- Global pandemic
What are the signs of PTSD and traumatic stress?
PTSD manifests itself differently, depending on the individual and traumatic event. It may be months, or even years before an individual starts to show symptoms of PTSD, though it is more common to develop PTSD symptoms within a month of the event.
And reactions can change over time. Some who have suffered from trauma are energized initially by the event to help them with the challenge of coping, only to later become discouraged or depressed.
Here are common signs and symptoms of PTSD:
1. Shock and denial.
After experiencing a traumatic event it is common to initially experience shock and denial. Both shock and denial are your body’s protective reactions.
Shock is a sudden and often intense disturbance of your emotional state that may leave you feeling stunned or dazed. Denial involves not acknowledging that something very stressful has happened, or not experiencing the full intensity of the event.
You may temporarily feel detached, numb or disconnected from life. This is a way of protecting you. Depending on your traumatic experience, you may not even recall it happened until you’re much older and ready to cope with the stress.
2. Intense or unpredictable feelings.
You may have sudden outbursts of anger or irritability. Your mood may change back and forth dramatically. You might be especially anxious or nervous, which is your nervous system’s fight or flight response.
Or you might even become depressed, accompanied by hopelessness or feelings of guilt or shame. This is your nervous system’s freeze response.
You may feel emotionally numb. Or even feel disconnected from yourself and lose interest in things that used to bring you joy or pleasure. You may find it difficult to experience positive feelings.
Children, in particular, experience PTSD through the development of new phobias that seem unrelated to the event.
3. Re-experiencing aspects of the traumatic experience.
This usually takes the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or vivid, distressing memories. They often appear to occur for no apparent reason. This is one of the hallmark signs of PTSD.
Anything, verbal or situational that reminds you of the traumatic event, or thinking about your memories of the event, may cause you experience intense physical reactions, such as rapid heartbeat, nausea, palpitation or sweating.
4. An increase in physical symptoms.
You may experience an increase in headaches, stomach upset, chest pain or difficulty breathing. Preexisting medical conditions may worsen due to the traumatic stress.
5. Change in behavior patterns and increased avoidance.
Sleep and eating patterns may be disrupted. Increased food intake or substance abuse may be used to numb painful feelings. You may actively avoid places, activities, or have mental blanks regarding parts of the event.
Avoidance of thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma or external reminders is another common sign of PTSD. The good news is that PTSD treatment doesn’t require you to revisit these thoughts or feelings in order to recover.
6. Change in thought patterns.
You might blame yourself or struggle with negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself. You may find it difficult to concentrate or make decisions or become more easily confused.
7. Recurring emotional reactions in response to reminders of the experience.
Anniversaries of the event, such as at one month or one year, as well as reminders such as aftershocks from earthquakes or the sounds of sirens, can trigger upsetting memories of the traumatic experience.
These “triggers” may be accompanied by fears that the stressful event will be repeated.
8. Strained interpersonal relationships.
Greater conflict, such as more frequent arguments with family members and coworkers, is common. On the other hand, you might become withdrawn and isolated and avoid your usual activities.
Because of this avoidance, or due to intense emotions caused by experiencing the traumatic event, it may be hard for you to connect with others. You may start to feel isolated and emotionally detached.
9. Hyperarousal or hypervigilance.
PTSD may cause you to feel on edge as if you’re constantly on alert. Your startle response may be heightened.
You may experience periods of rapid heartbeat, cold sweating, difficulty sleeping, or difficulty concentrating.
This is also why insomnia can be a common symptom of PTSD. Your body’s nervous system can’t relax or shut down.
What are the signs of PTSD symptoms in children?
- Bed wetting
- Thumb sucking
- Fears of being alone
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Throwing tantrums
- Decline in school performance
- Clinging to you
- Regression in behaviors to a younger age
Start Recovering from Trauma Now
PTSD is hard to deal with in yourself or in a loved one. If you identify with the signs of PTSD, there is hope. Because it is an unfortunately common occurrence, there has been a great deal of work done helping individuals recover from PTSD.
Many people with PTSD experience positive results through trauma-focused therapy, particularly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, Brainspotting and Eye-Movement Rapid Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
A number of factors tend to affect the length of time required for trauma recovery, including:
- The degree of intensity and loss. Events that last longer and pose a greater threat, and where loss of life or substantial loss of property is involved, often take longer to resolve.
- A person’s general ability to cope with emotionally challenging situations. Individuals who have handled other difficult, stressful circumstances well may find it easier to cope with the trauma.
- Other stressful events preceding the traumatic experience. Individuals faced with other emotionally challenging situations, such as serious health problems or family-related difficulties, may have more intense reactions to the new stressful event and need more time to recover.
How to Heal from Trauma & Begin Recovery?
If you recognize some of the signs of PTSD in yourself, there are things you can do at home, right now, to start feeling a little better.
1. Get Moving.
Moving the body is important for individuals suffering from PTSD due to the disorder’s effects on the nervous system. Moving can help you recover from the freeze response. It can also release built up stress hormones.
When you get up and get moving, especially to do something that moves all parts of your body, like swimming, you give your brain a chance to rest and relax your nervous system. Don’t feel pressure to exercise. Anything that moves your body is fine. Try stretching all of your joints gently.
2. Get Outdoors.
Being out in nature promotes a sense of inner peace and helps you feel connected to the larger world.
Hiking or other outdoor activities, can help you relax and feel less detached. Joining a walking group is a great way to re-learn how be around people without the heavy burden of maintaining conversation for extended periods of time.
3. Breathing Exercises.
Relaxation techniques can counter the tension in the body that comes with the emotional tension that usually accompanies PTSD. Meditation or deep breathing can help ease these symptoms.
4. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle and Establish Routines.
Use of alcohol and drugs may make things better at the moment, but usually worsens the symptoms and adds to other problems in your personal life.
Sleep is very important to maintaining your mental health, so if you find it difficult to fall asleep, you can develop a calming bedtime ritual, like taking a warm bath or doing some light reading in bed.
Try to eat meals, go to sleep and get out of bed at consistent times each day. This will help you reset your system.
5. Reduce Caffeine Consumption.
Caffeine commonly found in MSG, coffee, tea, aspirin, and soft drinks increase the pulse. This can trigger a worsening of PTSD symptoms.
6. Recognize that you survived the traumatic experience.
Rather than retelling the story of your trauma, focus on the fact that you survived. Pay attention to your life right now. How do you know that you survived?
Perhaps you are sitting in a comfortable chair right now. If you are safe at the present moment, focus on what is in your present life or environment that can let you know you are safe. Look around your room and identify five things you can see, hear or smell.
7. Recognize your trauma response is out of your control.
When faced with a serious threat, our bodies instinctual responses kick in. One of these is the freeze response. In the freeze response, your body can feel paralyzed, or go numb or limp.
This is an automatic response. In nature it can protect you from a predator who may assume you are dead and walk away. The numbness can protect you from high levels of pain.
Rather than beating yourself up for how you responded, recognize your body was on autopilot. Practice self-forgiveness. Remember, not fighting back in no way indicates you were weak, willing or responsible for what happened to you.
8. Break things down into smaller steps.
If you find it hard to get motivated focus on the smallest possible step you can take. For example, if things have piled up at home, tackle the smallest pile. Set a timer for 10 minutes and work on it during that time uninterrupted.
How do I help a child recover from a traumatic experience?
- Maintain a consistent schedule and routine including sleep and meal times. This helps children feel safe and know what to expect next.
- Encourage play and physical activity. This can help children release the physical impact of stress and trauma.
- Be more available to your child. They may regress and cling to you more than usual.
- Increase physical affection.
- Encourage emotional expression and validate their feelings. Watch out for the tendency to minimize emotions, “you’re strong.” Rather, validate first and say, “you were scared.” Then you can move to the present.
- Reassure them that they are safe now.
At Eddins Counseling Group in Houston we understand trauma and have mental health professionals available specifically trained to recognize the signs of PTSD. Our therapists are trained in trauma-focused treatments for PTSD, which has been shown to be effective for PTSD recovery.
Contact us to find out more about treatment options. To get started now give us a call to schedule an appointment at 832-559-2622 or schedule an appointment online.
**If you or someone you love is experiencing a life-threatening mental health emergency, contact the suicide prevention line for help.
Sign up to be notified of group and workshop dates.