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What is Post Traumatic Stress?

Many people have experienced traumatic events. If you have not experienced this first hand, you are sure to know people who have. At times it feels as if trauma is all around us. With so many of these stories on our doorstep, how do you know if you or a loved one have been affected? Our new clinical psychologist Ethelwyn Rebelo looks at Post Traumatic Stress and how to cope with it.

Post Traumatic Stress

If you have been exposed to a traumatic event involving exposure to violence, serious injury or threatened death, you may find that you develop some (not necessarily all) of the following symptoms:

  • Recurrent, intrusive memories of the event;

  • Distressing dreams;

  • Flashbacks;

  • Psychological distress when confronted by stimuli that remind you of the traumatic event;

  • Physiological reactions such as, for example palpitations in response to stimuli that remind you of the traumatic event;

  • Attempts to avoid distressing memories;

  • Attempts to avoid distressing reminders, for example if the traumatic event was related to a motor vehicle accident, you may avoid getting into a car;

  • Difficulty remembering an important aspect of the traumatic event;

  • Persistent, exaggerated and irrational views about yourself and the world such as the world is a bad place, no one can be trusted, I am doomed to be unlucky;

  • Blaming yourself unfairly for the traumatic event, for example you may think if I had decided not to go to that party, I would not have been in the accident;

  • Persistent negative emotional states;

  • Diminished interest in activities that usually give you pleasure;

  • Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others;

  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions;

  • Irritable behaviour and outbursts of anger;

  • Reckless or self-destructive behaviour;

  • Hyper vigilance with regard to sights and sounds that remind you of the traumatic event;

  • Exaggerated startle responses to sights and sounds that remind you of the traumatic event;

  • Problems with concentration;

  • Sleep problems;

  • Feeling detached from ones own body; and

  • Having a sense of unreality where the world does not feel real.

As troubling as the above symptoms are, it is important to remember that we become traumatised because we are able to learn and remember. We make connections between bad experiences and other events happening at the same time, thereby obtaining a sense of association which we then often view as cause and effect.

A man, walking through the forest, hearing a rustling in the grass and the song of birds, who is then attacked by a wild animal, might consequently become hyper –aware of all the sights and sounds that preceded the approach of the predator. Rustlings in the grass and the tweet of birds would evoke anxiety in him, even though these sounds were not related to the proximity of the beast. Just before he was attacked, however, he might also have noted that certain small animals scurried away and the repeat of such a sight would also fill him with fear, which would be a good thing, because in this case, the event did indeed indicate the approach of the attacker. Our minds are often unable to make distinctions between associations which signal harm and those which do not and so we tend to view all preceding stimuli as possible signs of danger.

This capacity to make links and to have them play out in our minds has assisted our survival as a species. In the case of the man and the animal, not only would he watch out anxiously for the sights and sounds which came before his battle, his body would also ensure that the lesson of danger was properly learned by means of nightmares, flash-backs, feelings of depression and a sense perhaps of immobilisation.

All of this is good and helpful, but as anyone who has suffered trauma knows, if it is too severe and it lasts for too long, it becomes counterproductive. We need to learn where there may be danger and then we need to keep going on with our lives. In order to do this we have to process the traumatic event properly by means of exchanging feelings of helplessness into a sense of mastery of ourselves and, if possible, of the context involved.

After a traumatic experience, it is advise that:

  • The person receives good physical care, comfort, and time and space to process the event.

  • Trauma survivors need emotional support from others; they need to be able to talk through their traumatic experiences with others when they are ready to do so.

  • They need to focus on their body by making use of relaxation techniques and exercise. It is important that they get enough sleep. If suffering from insomnia, it is advised that they see a doctor for medication which they can take temporarily to assist them with falling asleep. It is important also that they eat healthily.

  • Illegal Substances and alcohol should be avoided as these may worsen the symptoms of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and lead to further more serious problems.

  • Trauma survivors need to indulge themselves with activities that calm them, whether it be listening to music or having coffee with a friend. Connecting with others is helpful

  • Survivors should beware of irrational thoughts in which they blame themselves. They need to be reminded that it is always easy to be wise after an event. They should challenge any negative self-statements they identify themselves as making as these may worsen feelings of depression. For example, a man who believes that it is his role and duty to protect his family, may collapse psychologically after a burglary in which he was unable to defend his wife and children. The idea that this man may have that he should always be strong and able to be protective will need to be challenged as it is clearly unrealistic. He will need to learn to forgive himself his human vulnerability in that situation.

In the end, if the individual’s own coping strategies are not sufficient, it is important that the trauma survivor see a therapist who within the context of a warm and healing relationship will make use of techniques to assist with the resolution of the symptoms. If you feel you are in need of help, please contact us at

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