We all react to trauma in different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond.
Following a traumatic event, almost everyone experiences at least some of the symptoms of PTSD. When your sense of safety and trust are shattered, it’s normal to feel unbalanced, disconnected, or numb. It’s very common to have bad dreams, feel fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. These are normal reactions to abnormal events.
For most people, however, these symptoms are short-lived. They may last for several days or even weeks, but they gradually lift. But if you have post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms don’t decrease. You don’t feel a little better each day. In fact, you may start to feel worse.
PTSD develops differently from person to person because everyone’s nervous system and tolerance for stress is a little different. While you’re most likely to develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. Sometimes symptoms appear seemingly out of the blue. At other times, they are triggered by something that reminds you of the original traumatic event, such as a noise, an image, certain words, or a smell.
While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are four main types of symptoms.
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or intense mental or physical reactions when reminded of the trauma.
- Avoidance and numbing, such as avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, being unable to remember aspects of the ordeal, a loss of interest in activities and life in general, feeling emotionally numb and detached from others and a sense of a limited future.
- Hyperarousal, including sleep problems, irritability, hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”), feeling jumpy or easily startled, angry outbursts, and aggressive, self-destructive, or reckless behavior.
- Negative thought and mood changes like feeling alienated and alone, difficulty concentrating or remembering, depression and hopelessness, feeling mistrust and betrayal, and feeling guilt, shame, or self-blame.
Many people experience strong physical or emotional reactions immediately following the experience of a traumatic event. Most people will notice that their feelings dissipate over the course of a few days or weeks. However, for some individuals, the symptoms of psychological trauma may be increasingly severe and last longer. This may be the result of the nature of the traumatic event, availability of emotional support, past and present life stressors, personality types, and available coping mechanisms. Some of the most common symptoms of psychological trauma may include the following:
- Intrusive thoughts of the event that may occur out of the blue
- Visual images of the event
- Loss of memory and concentration abilities
- Mood swings
- Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories of the event
- Social isolation and withdrawal
- Lack of interest in previously-enjoyable activities
- Easily startled
- Tremendous fatigue and exhaustion
- Chronic muscle patterns
- Sexual dysfunction
- Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
- Vague complaints of aches and pains throughout the body
- Extreme alertness; always on the lookout for warnings of potential danger
- Overwhelming fear
- Obsessive and compulsive behaviors
- Detachment from other people and emotions
- Emotional numbing
- Guilt – especially if one lived while others perished
- Emotional shock
- Panic attacks