PTSD Doesn’t Have To Be: Coping With Trauma

Note: This blog is a bit of a departure for a coaching blog, but here I am drawing on my experience as a counselor. This is a topic I simply felt compelled to address, given the events of recent months. The information provided below is not a substitute for mental health care.

In recent memory here in the Deep South we have witnessed devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, explosions, oil spills, and floods.  These are in addition to an economic recession and slow recovery, the ongoing impact of deployment on soldiers and their loved ones and the everyday stress of an increasingly complex demanding world. Stressful events that are too frequent, too long or too intense lead to distress.  Distress is what we commonly refer to as stress. Some events like explosions, hurricanes, and combat, are keenly stressful. They are traumatic. It might seem a wonder that people are ever relaxed and at peace. However people are resilient, we bounce back from hard times.

Most people cope better with tragedy and trauma when they are well-informed about the issues at hand and understand the worse case scenarios.  You can then develop plans for yourself, family and/or business that have specific steps and actions to take.  You effectively maintain a sense of control in situations where you may have very little control. At times the only measure of control you have is over your reaction to the abnormal that become “the normal” in traumatic situations.

There are few important points to underscore about stressful or traumatic events. Every person reacts to disasters, loss and trauma in different ways. No one who experiences one is untouched. Many of the symptoms we associate with posttraumatic stress disorder or other anxiety disorders are really our normal reactions to these events. These may be emotional or physical such as:

  • Feeling on edge, nervous or anxious
  • Feeling tired all of the time
  • Intrusive thoughts that just will not go away
  • Nightmares or sleep disturbances
  • Anger or irritability
  • Disorientation, fear of being alone or in a crowd
  • Crying easily or often
  • Feeling hopeless or number
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Appetite disturbance
  • Memories/feelings about previous losses or events resurface

Trouble begins when these symptoms do not go away or become more severe over time.

Children are not immune to impact of stressful or traumatic events. How they react is dependent on their age as well as their individual developmental stage. Common symptoms include:

Young Children  (ages 1-6)

  • Nightmares or sleep disturbances
  • Headaches, stomach aches
  • Fear separation from caregiver
  • Regressing (e.g. bedwetting, loss of speech or previously acquired skills)

School-Age Children (ages 6-11)

  • Feelings of guilt
  • Concerns about safety
  • Changes in mood and/or behavior
  • Anxiety

Pre-adolescents & Adolescents (ages 12-18)

  • Rebellion at home and/or school
  • Change in school performance
  • Change in relationships
  • Depression and/or social withdrawal

Most people will not go on to develop persistent anxiety disorders or PSTD. Time works its magic, along with a few other important elements, and people have fewer symptoms or these are not as severe or fade away entirely. In fact a PTSD diagnosis cannot be made for at least 30 days after the event.

There are things you can do to help after a stressful or traumatic event. These are some examples:

  1.  Set a routine and do your best to stick to it. People are creatures of routine and structure. We like to know what is going to happen when, with whom and for how long.  Sometimes to the best route to getting back to normal, is creating the normal again.  This can be a simple as having dinner at the same time each evening. A regular routine can help lessen the feeling everything is out of control, as well as worry, stress and anxiety.
  2.  Stay connected. Maintaining connection with your community, your friends, your family, your co-workers, your church, etc, is critical. In fact is one of the strongest predictor about who bounces back successful from traumatic or stressful event. Avoiding people and places can be a sign you may need extra support.
  3.  Validate feelings. Feeling sad, a real sense of loss or anxious is normal.  Yes, it is important to be strong, but strong does not equal holding everything inside.  Strength in stressful situations is knowing you have powerful sometimes uncomfortable feelings, while also knowing  (or being willing to find out) what you need to do to move forward.  The aftermath of a traumatic event may require individual strength as well as the support of others.
  4.  Self-care. This might feel counter intuitive, or even selfish in the middle of a stressful time.  Exercise, is a great way to burn off stress. Contemplative time in a house of worship, in prayer or constructive reflective thinking (not brooding) can lessen the severity and sting of stress. Get enough sleep to be rested. Eat well. Take some time for pleasure, yes pleasure. A 5-minute laugh can do a lot to help heal the soul and manage stress as can listening to music, journaling, mediating, or some fuzz therapy (e.g. patting or playing with a cat or dog).

Some things can worsen or prolong symptoms. These are indicators that professional help maybe needed.

  1.  Avoidance. If you notice that you are avoiding activities, situations, or people who you normally you would not, this is a sign your symptoms could get worse.  We all get anxious, what makes it worse is avoiding things. Avoidance reinforces the idea that something should be feared and that anxiety is problematic. Avoidance doesn’t solve anything things will fester and grow worse.
  2. Using other unhealthy coping strategies. If your notice that you are drinking more, using drugs, isolating yourself, picking fights, etc. this is a sign that certain thoughts and feelings are not being dealt with in a healthy ways.
  3. Symptoms begin to interfere with your life. If you have prolonged problems concentrating at work, feel emotionally disconnected from your loved ones, or your lose interest in the things that once were fun or pleasurable, these are all signs things may be getting worse. The more symptoms interfere with your life, you are more susceptible being depressed or developing an anxiety disorder.

If you or someone you know is experiencing some or all of the symptoms above there are resources available to you.  For more information on mental health services, in Mississippi, contact the Department of Mental Health (DMH) Helpline at 1-877-210-8513.  Trained DMH staff members are on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Others in include the America Psychological Association Psychologist Locator, National Social Worker Finder, The Anxiety Disorders Associations of America, links and descriptions are provided below.

  • American Psychological Association Psychologist Locator: The American Psychological Association’s Psychologist Locator can help you find mental health providers in your area. Enter your zip code or your city and state, you will then be provided with contact information for psychologists who provide mental health services close to where you live. This search engine does not provide the specialty of therapists.
  • National Social Worker Finder: The National Association of Social Workers finder service can help you find mental health providers in your area who provide counseling services.  Enter your zip code or your city and state, you will then be provided with contact information for social workers who provide mental health services close to where you live. You can look for providers who specialize in anxiety, grief/loss, trauma/PTSD as well as age ranges, with specific populations, who speak specific languages and are in certain geographic locations.
  • The Anxiety Disorder Association of America Find a Therapist Website: The Anxiety Disorder Association of America Find a Therapist website can help you find mental health providers in your area that specialize in the treatment of anxiety disorders (including PTSD). To find a therapist, all you have to do is enter your city and state. You will then be provided with a list of providers in your area, as well as their credentials. The Find a Therapist website also provides additional suggestions on how to find a therapist in your area.

References:

  1. American Psychological Association, Help Center, Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Traumatic Stress, http://www.apa.org/
  2. Personal correspondence, Mathew Tull, PhD., Director, Anxiety Disorders Research, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior University of Mississippi Medical Center, July 2011
  3. Mississippi, Department of Mental Health, Disaster Information, http://www.dmh.state.ms.us/
  4. Tedeschi, R. G. & McNally, R.J., Can We Facilitate Posttraumatic Growth in Combat Veterans?, American Psychologist, Jan. 2011, Vol. 66, No. 1, p.p. 19-25
  5. Sapolsky. R. M., Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition, 2004
  6. Wheeler, C.M., 10 Simple Solutions to Stress, 2007
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