Health conditions

Traumatic stress

When you have experienced a traumatic event, even though the crisis is over you may still be experiencing, or may experience later, some strong emotional or physical reactions. It is very common, and in fact quite normal, for people to experience reactions to a particularly horrible and terrifying experience.

Sometimes these reactions appear immediately after the traumatic event. Sometimes they appear a few hours or a few days later. Sometimes even weeks or months may pass before the reactions appear.

The signs and symptoms of a stress reaction may last a few days, a few weeks or a few months and occasionally longer. This may be dependent on the severity of the traumatic event and the support a person has from others. A traumatic event can be so painful that people can need the assistance of a professional counsellor. This does not imply craziness or weakness; it simply means that a particularly traumatic event can be just too powerful for the person to manage alone.

Signs and symptoms of a stress reaction to trauma

Below are some of the very common signs and symptoms of a stress reaction to trauma.

Table: Signs and symptoms of a stress reaction to trauma
Physical Thinking Emotional
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • upset stomach
  • tremors (lips, hands)
  • feeling uncoordinated
  • profuse sweating
  • diarrhoea
  • dizziness
  • chest pain (should be checked at hospital
  • rapid heart beat
  • headaches
  • sleep disturbances
  • chills
  • slow thinking
  • difficulty making decisions
  • difficulty with problem solving
  • confusion
  • disorientation (especially to time and place)
  • difficulty calculating
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty with remembering
  • difficulty naming common objects
  • seeing the event over and over
  • hyper-vigilance
  • anxiety
  • fear
  • guilt
  • grief
  • depression
  • sadness
  • feeling lost
  • feeling abandoned
  • feeling isolated
  • worry about others
  • anger
  • irritability
  • feeling numb, startled, shocked

What if the distress continues?

Often talking to your friends or family about the trauma you have experienced is not enough. You may find that the reaction to the trauma you have experienced continues to seriously disrupt your life. You may need to seek help if:

  • You do not have anyone to talk to about your feelings.
  • You continue to have nightmares and disturbed sleep.
  • You continue to feel numb and empty.
  • You chose to remain withdrawn from others.
  • You are overactive in order to avoid thinking or having any feelings about what happened.
  • The physical and emotional symptoms of stress continue and become unmanageable.
  • You continually feel tense or confused and your emotions do not return to normal.
  • Work and relationships suffer as a result of the traumatic event.
  • You continue to re-experience the event in your mind.
  • You are increasing your use of alcohol or other drugs.
  • The reaction you have received from family and friends is distressing and confusing.

Steps to recovery

  • Remember that your reaction is normal.
  • Establish some long and short-term goals.
  • Discuss your reactions with other people.
  • Maintain normal activities.
  • Return to normal employment or school as soon as possible.
  • Be patient, time is important in recovery.

For partners, family and friends

Partners, family and friends can help by:

  • believing them
  • listening and allowing them the opportunity to talk about the event in their own time and in their own way
  • not judging them
  • spending time with them
  • allowing them some private time
  • reassuring them they are safe
  • allowing them the opportunity to express their feelings
  • not taking the person’s anger and feelings personally
  • helping with some tasks such as minding the children or cooking, if this is what they want
  • not saying things such as ‘lucky it wasn’t worse’ – people who have experienced a trauma are not consoled by these statements.

Where to get help

Sexual Assault Resource Centre

Anglicare

Centrecare


Acknowledgements
Sexual Assault Resource Centre

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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