Overcoming traumatic stress
If you experience a traumatic incident such as a bereavement, physical or sexual assault, or a serious accident, the psychological effects can be profound. In most cases, these effects will gradually fade after a few days or weeks. In others, your mind may find it impossible to process the trauma and so you feel stuck in a permanently stressed state, feeling out of control of your emotions and experiencing distressing flashbacks – this is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you have experienced a traumatic incident, there are a few things you should know. Perhaps the most important is that, whatever your reaction – whether it's vengeful fantasies about the person who harmed you, feeling constantly jumpy and 'hyper-vigilant' for possible threats, or a sense of numbness and disconnection from other people – it is perfectly normal. When something shocking has happened, which may have completely overwhelmed your coping mechanisms, your mind must understand and make sense of it. That's why people with traumatic stress often experience intrusive memories or images, usually accompanied by a surge of negative emotion like anger or anxiety – your mind is returning to the incident over and over until it has processed what's happened and can move on.
Following on from this, it's also very important to allow these thoughts, images and feelings to occur – don't try and push them away or distract yourself, however upsetting they may be. This will only increase the number of thoughts and make this necessary but upsetting process last longer. Also tell the story of your trauma as many times as you need to – perhaps tell friends and family you will need to do this to get better and ask them to be patient with you. This is a key part of the healing process.
If you find your stress too much to cope with, please do get some professional help and support. Talk to your GP or contact Victim Support for advice. I also recommend the excellent Overcoming Traumatic Stress: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques, by Claudia Herbert and Ann Wetmore. Like all the Overcoming... books, it's a self-help guide written by leading experts in this field, so it will help explain what you're going through and give you practical strategies for dealing with it.