“For years, people who suffered from PTSD symptoms were misunderstood. They were labeled moody, irritable, obnoxious, self-centered, crazy, and sometimes lazy. They did not fit the diagnostic labels of the times, but they were certainly suffering.”
—Kendall Johnson, After the Storm: Healing After Trauma, Tragedy, and Terror
Some people develop PTSD symptoms or post-traumatic stress disorder following a shocking, dangerous, or life-threatening event. It is common for people to feel afraid during or after the event or be traumatized by it, but most people will heal naturally as their PTSD symptoms lessen in intensity over time. However, some individuals will experience emotional challenges that persist long after the event has taken place. They find it difficult to process the memories of trauma, causing increased anxiety and re-experiencing the feelings associated with the event.
In the 19th century, traumatic neurosis was first identified among survivors of railway crashes. But stress symptoms have been described early on since man first began engaging in wars and collecting tragedies. Agitation, stupor, and horrible nightmares were some of the symptoms commonly seen in isolated cases. These isolated incidents evolved into a pathologic entity whose medical and psychiatric ramifications quickly unraveled during and after World War I.
In the days following a traumatic event, some people may feel worried, distressed, confused, fearful, and would find it difficult to believe what has happened to them. Because of these strange reactions, many traumatized individuals would think they are going crazy. However, these are natural reactions to severe stress and shock. It is natural to feel afraid. It is your body’s “fight-or-flight” response that helped you survive. But sometimes its effects still kick in even when you are no longer in danger. Each person reacts differently after a trauma. This range of reactions are short-lived and often go away after a few days or weeks.
Trauma doesn’t always lead to PTSD.
Ongoing psychological and physical symptoms after a traumatic event can lead to the development of PTSD. If PTSD symptoms persist for months or years or if they impede on your daily life and functioning you may be suffering from PTSD. Only doctors (psychologists or psychiatrists) who are trained to work on mental health conditions can diagnose PTSD. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 is a manual that medical professionals use to diagnose mental disorders. Feel free to check the DSM-5 criteria for the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder in another article.
Your body and brain immediately respond to a stressful event with terror, fear, and other negative emotions.
Some of the common emotions, feelings, and behaviors of survivors and witnesses of a traumatic event.
- Anxiety – concerns about not being able to cope with the situation; feelings of nervousness, extreme worry, and panic when encountering reminders of the event; worrying that the experience may recur.
- Sleep disturbances – having restless sleep and vivid nightmares; the dream may be related to the traumatic event or just generally disturbing or upsetting
- Intrusive memories – experiencing intrusive thoughts or images of the event, which appear all of a sudden without any triggers or reminders; other thoughts may be triggered by sounds, smells, news, social media posts, etc.
- Sadness – feeling sad, grieving, or crying after a traumatic event; feeling of low mood.
- Hypervigilance – being constantly on guard thinking that a threat is always lurking around every corner; finding ordinary things or situations as dangerous (being overly protective of children); feeling tense or edgy.
- Guilt – blaming self for not having acted as well as one would have wished or about letting others down. Someone who survived a fatal accident that killed a loved one may feel guilty of being alive (survivor’s guilt).
- Irritability – being angry or irritable at the injustice of the event. The anger can be directed at loved ones or close family members, and colleagues.
- Emotional numbness – unable to experience or express emotions such as happiness or love; feeling distant from others.
- Avoidance – making an effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, and objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience.
It is common for trauma survivors to experience physical symptoms and bodily sensations associated with anxiety, tension, or stress. General health problems, including fatigue, headaches, chest pains, respiratory diseases, heart problems, and kidney diseases, may also occur.
- Gastrointestinal symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Insomnia, disturbed sleep, night terrors
- Tiredness, exhaustion, extreme fatigue
- Dizziness, increased heart rate, shallow breathing
- High blood pressure or high sugar levels
- Agitation, anxiety, difficulty concentrating
- Stress-related medical conditions
- Headache, tensed muscles (especially in the neck and shoulders)
- Trembling and shakiness
Having some of these symptoms after a life-threatening event doesn’t mean you have PTSD. But if they become overwhelming that they interfere with your ability to live a normal life, you need to find a therapist who will help you restore your emotional well-being. Trauma can manifest months or years after the event and has a lasting impact on your mental and emotional stability. If you are diagnosed with PTSD, know that there are many available treatment options to alleviate your symptoms.