James J. De Santis, Ph.D.
Post Office Box 894, Glendora, CA 91740-0894
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What is Traumatic Stress?
Stress is a normal part of modern life; we cannot eliminate all stress from
our world. Traumatic stress is different, however. Traumatic stress results
from extreme or potentially life-changing events that cause a person to
experience an unusually strong reaction. A person's usual capacity to
function may be temporarily overwhelmed.
Causes of traumatic stress include such things as natural or man-made
disaster like earthquake, fire, flood, air crash, explosions, hazardous
materials spill, riot, or building collapse. Crime, such as assault, robbery,
burglary, rape, or domestic violence, can also cause traumatic stress.
War-related experiences and serious injury situations can cause trauma.
Witnessing a tragic event like a murder or suicide can also produce
traumatic stress. Even just the perceived threat of a serious event can be
Trauma often results in one or more losses:
Loss of income, job, or possessions
Loss of physical health
Loss of time now spent with bureaucracies
Loss of routine or lifestyle
Loss of a sense of personal security and control
Loss of self-worth
Loss of hope in the future
Loss of trust in other people
Loss of belief in a "just" world
A reaction to traumatic stress is a normal response to an abnormal event.
Symptoms may be intensified by previous exposures to trauma. Symptoms
may persist well after the trauma. In some cases, symptoms may not
appear until well after the event. Anniversaries and holidays can remind the
person of the event and trigger a renewed reaction.
Signs of Traumatic Stress
A reaction to a traumatic event can include symptoms from any of the four
1. Physical Signs
Rapid heart rate
Physical tension or muscle tremors
Nausea or vomiting
Fatigue, feeling drained
Changes in sleep pattern and in appetite
Non-specific aches and pains
2. Cognitive Signs
Recurring and intrusive thoughts or images
Changes in alertness and memory
Difficulty making decisions
Denial or disbelief
Suspiciousness and hypervigilance
3. Emotional Signs
Anxiety and fear
Irritability or moodiness
Depression or emotional numbness
Guilt, shame, or self-blame
Sensitivity to reminders of the event
Loss of interest in usual activities
4. Behavioral Signs
Restlessness or pacing
Intense startle reflex
Social withdrawal and detachment
Outbursts, conflicts with others
Increased addictive behavior
Drop-off of customary performance
What You Can Do
There are a number of strategies available to cope better with traumatic
The trauma survivor can:
Slow down a little, but keep your normal routine.
Structure your time, keep busy.
Keep goals manageable. Focus on priorities.
Focus on your strengths and coping skills.
Maintain a well-balanced diet.
Maintain regular physical activity.
Take time for relaxation and rest.
Spend time with other people.
Talk about the event, ventilate feelings.
Take time to grieve.
Avoid making any major life decisions.
Avoid self-medication with alcohol or drugs.
Family and friends of the trauma survivor can:
Take time to listen and understand.
Give additional attention.
Be supportive and patient.
Avoid minimizing the experience.
Be flexible with roles and obligations.
Allow time to heal.
Spend time with their loved one.
Offer help even if their loved one hasn't asked.
Help with everyday tasks.
Take time for relaxation and recreation.
When To Seek Help
In most cases, symptoms of traumatic stress subside in about 6 to 12
weeks. If symptoms do not start to fade in about one month, evaluation by
a mental health professional may be warranted. Depending on the person,
treatment can include a number of interventions:
Individual counseling often is short-term and uses a supportive and
educational approach. The person is encouraged to review the traumatic
events, ventilate emotional feelings, and develop plans for future recovery.
They may be coached in relaxation techniques, steps to manage the
feelings, or how to grieve.
Family therapy may help sustain relationships through the recovery period.
Group therapy has been shown to be helpful with people who have gone
through similar traumatic events, such as disaster or war.
Medication may help reduce symptoms, especially if anxiety or depression
A good recovery is predicted by a rapid onset of symptoms, short duration
of symptoms, strong social support network, and absence of any other
sources of stress.
Traumatic Stress & Recovery