Trauma and Stress: Taking Back Control

Events that threaten our overall sense of well-being and safety in the world can have long-lasting impacts on our emotions, thoughts and behaviors.  If you are raped, held up at gunpoint, witness the death of someone you know, serve in a combat situation, almost die in a disaster or auto accident—you will have some kind of psychological repercussions.  They may last weeks but can last months or even years depending on the severity and duration of the trauma, your personality and access to mental health treatment.  What happens is that the body and mind ‘reset’ from normal adjustment and reactions to a chronic ‘fight or flight’ way of responding to events in your life.  It’s like you are always geared to confront a catastrophe.  It will feel like things in your life control you and you are out of control, left feeling helpless and even hopeless.  You may have excessive responses to certain sounds and images.  You may have difficulty being around other people.  You may have difficulty sleeping or performing at work.  You may find that your emotions are difficult to control or go totally numb.  In more extreme situations you may ‘re-experience’ the trauma in nightmares, intrusive thoughts, or flashbacks.

To cope with these overwhelming feelings, some people develop compulsive behavior such as alcoholism or other drug addictions to avoid thinking about painful memories and to numb the unexpected, distressing emotions involved.  Other dysfunctional coping could include sex addiction, overeating, overspending, overworking, or isolating.

More effective ways of coping include talking about feelings to relieve the pressure and ending the isolation that often accompanies fear.  Many people with traumatic stress reactions worry that others will judge them, so they avoid talking or getting treatment.  Psychological treatment may be necessary if the stress reactions persist for much more than a couple of weeks.  Treatment helps people learn to cope with disturbing memories (i.e., to reduce flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks, etc.) so that memories or reminders of trauma no longer arouse powerful emotions.  Medication, exercise, healthy diet, and reading about coping strategies all can be helpful, but they do not substitute for psychological treatment.  Especially in view of the potential impact of stress on headaches, muscular pain, stomach/intestinal discomfort, and immune function, take good, smart care of yourself by using all of your resources, including psychological treatment when you are under stress.