Over the years, we have started to better understand trauma and the impact it can have on a person’s life.
With increasing awareness around conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) however, there are also certain assumptions made that trauma only comes as result of experiencing or witnessing significant events such as war, natural disasters, horrific crime, and so on.
All of this true. But it’s also true that post-traumatic stress (PTS) can be experienced as a result of a very personal set of circumstances – loss being one of those. What underlies our experience of trauma is how we are able to process (or not process) our loss.
My experience of trauma.
My mum died very unexpectedly and suddenly. After turning up at the house and encountering her body, this was a trauma for me which led to post-traumatic stress.
I simply felt unable to file away the image and the emotions that went with it. I re-experienced it every day.
Every time I saw an ambulance on blue lights, it triggered those unpleasant memories in a very real way. Every time, I woke up on a Monday morning, as I did on the day she died, I had an awful sinking feeling and there was the image again.
It’s true to say that on occasions, I still have those flashbacks. Although these are more rare and I now feel more dissociated / distant from the image.
Trauma after loss.
It’s completely normal for anybody to experience post-traumatic stress after loss – any kind of loss, not just a bereavement. I’ve known clients with trauma as a result of divorce, health issues and child separation.
Post-traumatic stress becomes a ‘disorder’ (really not a fan of that word), when we are unable to process things and get completely stuck in trauma for a pro-longed period of time.
The point I’m making here is it’s a matter of being aware that our experience of trauma is individual and related to our in-built coping mechanisms. What may not be a trauma for you, might well be for somebody else.
The question is, how do you know if you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress or post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to you grief?
Both post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are associated with feeling fearful, nervous, and manifests in avoiding the activity or place associated with the traumatic event. However, there are significant differences in symptom intensity, duration, and treatment.
Signs and symptoms of PTS may include:
- Racing heart.
- Shaking hands.
- Feeling sweaty, afraid, and nervous.
- Reluctance to engage in activity or visit a place you associate with you trauma.
- Nightmares / bad dreams about your traumatic experience.
- Feeling anxious in a situation that reminds you of your trauma.
Although they can feel intense, symptoms of PTS usually pass at some point after the event and won’t cause any prolonged meaningful interference with your life.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD may include:
- Reliving a traumatic event through nightmares.
- Reliving a traumatic event with flashbacks, or constantly thinking about it.
- Avoid situations or people that remind you of the event.
- Having only negative thoughts or emotions. For example, wondering why the event happened and if you could have done anything to stop it, which can lead to feelings of guilt or shame.
- Constantly feeling jittery, nervous, or “on edge” – known as hyper arousal.
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping.
- Angry outbursts and irritability.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Repetitive and distressing images or sensations.
- Physical sensations, such as pain, sweating, feeling sick or trembling.
Although some of these symptoms sound similar to PTS, the difference is the duration and intensity. Symptoms of PTSD tend to continue for a pro-longed period of time, are severe, and interfere with your daily functioning.
It’s normal to experience upsetting and confusing thoughts after a traumatic event, but in most people these improve naturally over a few weeks. You should visit your GP if you are still having problems about 4 weeks after the traumatic experience, or the symptoms are particularly troublesome.
What to do about it.
If you are experiencing PTS or PTSD, it can make it difficult to face your grief and for some people, it needs to be treated first before seeking help with your grief.
It’s important that if you suspect you are experiencing PTS or PTSD, you don’t self-diagnose. It’s also vital that you seek help rather than avoid this by creating distractions with work or hobbies, or numb the symptoms with alcohol, drugs, and similar ways.
If you’re having difficulty in taking a step towards seeking medical help, then I’m here to help.