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An image of a woman dealing with Traumatic Stress

Traumatic stress is a clinical term for a normal reaction to an abnormal and traumatic event.

In most cases, symptoms of traumatic stress resolve. Occasionally post-traumatic symptoms can develop into PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a serious mental health condition requiring professional treatment.

What is Traumatic Stress?

It is commonplace to be exposed to a traumatic event. According to National Center for PTSD, 50% of women and 60% of men will experience a traumatic event, such as:

  • Acts of violence
  • Combat
  • Serious injury
  • Sexual assault
  • Terrorist acts
  • Death

It is normal to experience traumatic stress after exposure to a distressing and shocking event. Some people will suffer from traumatic stress by witnessing an abnormal event. Others are assailed by traumatic stress when a loved one undergoes a trauma.

During the days and weeks following a trauma, you may encounter any of the following physical and emotional symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Depressed mood
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Avoidance of anything associated with the trauma

Trauma is a specific form of stress that expresses exposure to shocking, abnormal events outside the range of typical daily experiences. Traumatic events are intense, distressing, and mentally painful.

To qualify as a traumatic event per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the trauma must involve exposure to:

  • Death or threatened death
  • Serious injury
  • Sexual violence

Exposure to a traumatic event is defined as:

  • Directly experiencing the trauma
  • Witnessing the trauma in person
  • Learning of a loved one’s involvement in a traumatic event
  • Repeated exposure to trauma, (police officers or first responders in the line of duty

DSM uses this narrow definition of trauma to differentiate general stress responses and problematic trauma responses.

Many individuals exposed to traumatic events suffer from more than the initial stress responses outlined above. Studies show that lifetime prevalence of PTSD ranges from 6% to 9%, with between 3.5% and 4.5% of the U.S. population diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in any given year.

PTSD is a psychiatric condition characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Avoiding people, places, things, and memories associated with the trauma
  • Reexperiencing the traumatic event
  • Negative self-beliefs stemming from the trauma
  • Hypervigilance and edginess
  • Vivid nightmares and flashbacks
  • Dramatic mood shifts

While many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are normal and healthy reactions in the weeks following a trauma, if they persist for a month this can develop into PTSD. There is also a risk of PTSD developing if symptoms start causing problems at home, work, or school.

An image of two women dealing with Traumatic Stress

Note that trauma responses will differ from person to person. Many people will see no long-lasting negative effects from witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. This can be evidenced by the rates of PTSD in the general population (8% of women and 4% of men) compared to the rates of those exposed to traumatic events (50% of women and 60% of men, according to the same data).

PTSD is not the only potential adverse outcome experienced by those experiencing negative psychological effects from trauma. Other responses include:

Coping with Traumatic Stress

Fortunately, there are many effective methods for coping with and treating the stressful outcomes triggered by trauma. Researchers and psychologists promote the following coping techniques:

  1. Prioritizing self-care: Eat as many whole foods as possible and limit processed foods. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables and stay hydrated by drinking small glasses of water throughout the day. Exercise for 30 minutes daily. Practice good sleep health. Spend some time outdoors.
  2. Leaning on your loved ones: Identify those in your social network who you can lean on for support when required. You may need help dealing with household tasks and errands like shopping. You might feel ready to talk about your experience. What counts is knowing that you are not alone when facing emotional turmoil caused by exposure to trauma.
  3. Facing your feelings: It is normal to avoid thinking about a traumatic event. If your responses extend to social withdrawal, sleeping too much, remaining in the house, or abusing substances, these are not healthy methods of coping. Trying to ease gradually back into a normal routine with support from your loved ones and a mental health professional will be more beneficial.
  4. Being patient: Powerful reactions to distressing events are not abnormal. It may take time for you to start feeling normal. Symptoms should improve in the days and weeks after the event, though, so pack plenty of patience.
  5. Seeking treatment: If symptoms persist for more than a month, it’s time to consider exploring your treatment options.

When to Seek Help

Most people will not require a professional intervention for traumatic stress. Symptoms subside over time.

Some people, though, find that intense symptoms linger, while others find the symptoms start impacting daily living. In some cases, those exposed to trauma develop ASD (acute stress disorder), with symptoms presenting during the first month after the trauma. ASD symptoms are similar to PTSD symptoms, although symptoms must manifest for more than one month for a diagnosis of PTSD.

Mental health professions like psychologists and psychiatrists can help you to formulate healthy and robust coping strategies for coping with the symptoms induced by exposure to trauma.

If symptoms are especially intense during the first month after the trauma, or if symptoms persist for more than a month, you should seek professional help. You should also engage with treatment if your symptoms are disrupting your personal and professional life or daily functioning.

Trauma affects people in many different ways depending on the following variables:

  • Age when the trauma occurred
  • Type of traumatic event
  • Exposure to multiple traumas
  • Severity of trauma
  • Biological factors
  • Other risk factors like co-occurring psychological issues or volatile family environment

Mental Health Treatment at Los Angeles Therapy Network

Psychologists can deliver evidence-based interventions to help you deal with traumatic stress, ASD, or PTSD.

One of the most common forms of psychotherapy, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is proven effective for the treatment of various psychological disorders like traumatic stress. World Health Organization guidelines indicate the use of CBT to treat the symptoms of ASD in adults. Some research suggests that those who engage with trauma-focused CBT are at reduced risk of developing chronic PTSD.

PFA (psychological first aid) is another form of therapy that can be effective for treating traumatic stress. Originally developed to help families in the aftermath of terrorism acts or disasters, PFA is now used for the treatment of those exposed to any type of trauma. Rather than treating stress as a disorder, PFA focuses sharply on coping and functioning in the face of stress.

Additionally, traumatic stress – PTSD in particular – also responds favorably to:

SSRIs can be beneficial for alleviating the symptoms of traumatic stress, either in isolation or in combination with psychotherapy. SSRIs are a type of antidepressants named selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors for their mechanism of action.

Family-based therapies can be effective for helping children and adolescents exposed to traumatic events. Reach out to the friendly team at Los Angeles Therapy Network today and we can connect you with the right type of trauma therapy for your needs. Call 833.604.1287 to schedule an appointment.

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