Following a traumatic event, some people experience Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). PTS is not Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The latter occurs when an individual experiences persistent and significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress for a minimum of one month.
It’s easy to confuse PTS and PTSD because of the similar names, and there is considerable overlap in the symptoms between the two conditions. Both are associated with feeling fearful and/or nervous, avoiding the activity or place associated with the traumatic event, and nightmares. However, there are significant differences in symptom intensity, duration, and treatment.
PTS is a common and often adaptive response to experiencing a traumatic or stressful event, such as a car accident or the more unusual events of military combat or kidnapping. Nearly everyone who faces a scary situation will display at least a few signs of PTS because the brain is hard-wired to tell the body to tense the muscles, breathe faster and pump more blood when we’re under intense stress. This “fight-or-flight” response prepares the body to deal with a threat or challenge in the environment by pumping more blood and oxygen to the muscles, and it shuts down non-critical functions like digestion. The fight-or-flight response is considered a normal reflex during and even after a traumatic event.
The Symptoms of PTS Are Characterized in Three Distinct Areas
1) Re-experiencing Symptoms
- Flashbacks. A flashback is more than a memory—it’s as though a person is reliving a traumatic event—and includes emotional and physical experiences, such as crying, increased heart rate (tachycardia), and sweating
- Bad dreams or night terrors
- Persistent, disturbing or frightening thoughts
Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s daily routine. Specific triggers, such as sounds, smells and places may often contribute to or exacerbate the symptoms. This leads to the second distinct area of PTS.
2) Avoidance Symptoms
- Staying away from places, events or objects that are reminders of the experience
- Feeling emotionally numb or disassociating emotionally from a person’s surroundings
- Experiencing strong feelings of guilt, depression or worry
- Losing interest in activities that used to be enjoyable
- Having trouble recalling or remembering the traumatic event
- Using alcohol or drugs to help alleviate or reduce unpleasant memories or re-experiencing symptoms
Some of the things that remind people of a traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms that cause them to change their personal routine. An example of this is that after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or even being in a car.
3) Hyperarousal Symptoms
- Feeling “jumpy” or easily startled
- Feeling hyper-aware of surroundings
- Choosing to stay in the back corner of a room in order to view all areas
- Checking behind yourself frequently
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Feeling stressed out, frustrated or angry
Instead of being triggered by the things that remind them of a traumatic event, hyper-arousal symptoms in a person are usually persistent and constant. Individuals with hyper-arousal symptoms may feel stressed out, frustrated or angry, making it difficult for them to complete their usual tasks, such as going to work, sleeping, eating, and concentrating. Over time, these symptoms can harm their interpersonal relationships.
*It is natural and normal to experience some of the symptoms listed after experiencing a dangerous or traumatic event. PTS symptoms will often dissipate or even disappear completely over a matter of days or weeks.*
Facts About Post-Traumatic Stress
- PTS symptoms are common after deployment from the military and traumatic events. The symptoms may improve or resolve within a month. PTSD symptoms, however, are more severe, persistent and can interfere with daily functioning and last for more than a month.
- Most people with PTS do not develop PTSD.
- You can develop PTSD without initially having PTS.
- PTS requires no medical intervention unless symptoms are severe. However, it may be beneficial to seek psychological healthcare support to prevent symptoms from worsening.
- It’s important to note that PTSD is a medically-diagnosed conditionand should be treated by a clinician.
Since PTS is not considered a mental disorder, treatment is not required as symptoms will likely improve or subside on their own within a month. However, you should talk to a healthcare provider if you feel troubled by your symptoms, especially if they’re interfering with your work, school or relationships or if you’re engaging in reckless behavior, such as drinking or using drugs to cope with the symptoms.
If you are experiencing the symptoms of PTS, the counselors at Thrive Boston Counseling can help. Contact us at 617-395-5806 or find us online at http://www.ThriveBoston.com.