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Traumatic Stress

Trauma is defined as experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events such as war, natural disasters, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults such as rape. Threats to psychological or social integrity can also be traumatic. Most survivors of trauma return to normal within about six months. However, for some people, the intense reactions persist or may even worsen over time.

People experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often have intrusive memories of events associated with the trauma in the form of flashbacks or nightmares, and have physical symptoms of over-arousal, along with extreme emotional outbursts to minor events. They may also experience the opposite: emotional numbness and loss of feeling. They may avoid reminders of the event and show extreme distress when exposed to the reminders or triggers. Problems with concentration, controlling impulses, decision making, and memory can intefere with daily life.

Several factors increase the stress of an acute traumatic event. For instance, if the trauma occurred because of a deliberate act of aggression as opposed to an accident (having a leg broken by someone else versus breaking a leg in a skiing accident) stress is much more severe and overpowering. If the trauma results in ongoing stress, such as a lawsuit, an injury that does not heal and requires modification of activities (such as an auto accident resulting in chronic, debilitating back pain), stress contains the worst features of both PTSD and chronic stress.

There is both acute and chronic stress in cases where the trauma is repeated and there is little hope of escape (prisoners of war, soldiers in war, child abuse victims, hostages in a criminal activity, or a kidnapping). Where the trauma was inflicted by a supposedly protective person or loved one (intrafamilial battering or verbal or sexual abuse, abuse by teacher, counselor, pastor, police officer or other person with public responsibilities), the stress is compounded by loss of trust. Long-term psychological consequences such as depression, anxiety, behavioral disorders, emotional numbing, or suicidal impulses are not unusual. The more exacerbating factors present, the worse the stress.

Victims of trauma may need to tell their stories time and time again to a trauma team, other survivors, family, friends, reporters, or anyone who will listen. With each repeated telling, the victim puts the experience a little more in perspective. Writing an impact statement about how the trauma affected them is another scientifically documented way to reduce PTSD. By reliving the experience, bit by bit, the impact of the trauma decreases proportionally. Traumatic stress can also be reduced by community support. Hostages, for instance, need to feel they have not been forgotten, that somebody cares and is loyal. Community support provides hope and a feeling that help is available or on the way. Family "hostages" of abusive families, for instance, need to feel the presence of shelters and self-help groups even if they are not yet ready to leave the situation.

A personal, political or religious belief system that explains the trauma also helps. If a loved one dies for one's country or god, you are injured severely while doing something you love, or you find a sense of meaning in the experience, the trauma is somehow lessened. Victims reveal their belief systems with comments like, "It wasn't my time to die. God wasn't ready for me yet. There is something more for me to do in this life. I have another chance." Victims injured for a cause in which they deeply believe, such as political or religious freedom, do not suffer the same psychological trauma as victims for whom an event is meaningless.

How to Cope

Write about what it means to you that the traumatic event occurred. How did it affect you beliefs about yourself, others and the world. How did it affect your sense of trust, safety, relationships and intimacy.

Write a full account of the trauma, including details, your thoughts and feelings at the time. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Reread your story several time, revising the narrative as new thoughts or feelings arise.

If you are feeling stuck and unable to make the progress you want, find a counselor who is trained in Emotional Processing Therapy for further help.

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