What is a Traumatic Stress
People who experience or witness
horrible events such as school shootings, combat,
rape, torture, natural disasters, accidents
or other things in which their physical safety
and life -- or the safety and life of others
-- was in danger have experienced a traumatic
stress. People who are repeatedly exposed to
life or death situations, such as EMT and rescue
squad workers, police officers, fire fighters
and medical personnel on burn wards or trauma
units where stress levels and mortality rates
are high also witness trauma. Anyone who has
experienced these things has experienced a shock
and, even if all ultimately escape danger, the
people who lived through the event may feel
like life “just isn’t the same anymore.”
People may experience a variety of reactions,
many of which are understandable in the context
of experiencing or witnessing traumatic events
such as the hurricanes. Experiencing physical
or emotional symptoms in response to a traumatic
event is normal and is called a traumatic stress
Physical Symptoms of
Anyone affected by the hurricanes
or other traumatic stress may experience:
- Being easily startled
- Gastro-intestinal problems
Emotional Symptoms of
Those affected by traumatic
stress may feel:
- Reduced awareness
- Feeling like you are numb
or not part of the world
What is PTSD?
PTSD stands for Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder. This is similar to a stress
reaction and, in fact, many people who have
experienced a traumatic event do develop PTSD.
Those with PTSD may experience many of the same
emotional and physical symptoms as those with
a traumatic stress reaction. Those with PTSD,
however, experience trauma along with intense
fear, helplessness or horror and then develop
intrusive symptoms (such as flashbacks or nightmares).
Their symptoms will last more than a month and
get in the way of normal life.
Traumatic stress is not uncommon.
- About 70 % of U.S. adults
have experienced a severe traumatic event
at least once in their life and one out of
five go on to develop symptoms of PTSD
- Approximately 8% of all
adults have suffered from PTSD at any one
If you include children and teens, an estimated
5% of all Americans will develop PTSD during
their lifetime or more than 13 million people
- About one in 10 women will
develop PTSD symptoms during their lifetime
or double the rate for men because they are
much more likely to be victims of domestic
violence, rape or abuse.
- Almost 17% of men and 13%
of women have experienced more than three
traumatic events during their life.
The Mind/Body Connection
Suffering traumatic stress can
affect your emotions as well as your body and
the two are so connected that it can be hard
to tell the difference. For instance, traumatic
stress can cause you to lose concentration,
forget things, or have trouble sleeping. It
may be difficult to determine on your own whether
these symptoms are because you do not feel well
physically or because you are still upset. Traumatic
stress also can lead you to eat in unhealthy
ways or to eat foods that are not healthy, and
those eating patterns can affect how you sleep
or how your stomach feels. Stress can cause
headaches, but the pain from the headaches can
also make your stress worsen.
Because the body and the mind
work in concert, traumatic stress can cause
a cycle that makes it seem like the body and
mind are working against one another, worsening
symptoms like pain and fatigue.
Coping with Traumatic
There are things you can do
to help yourself if you have suffered traumatic
stress as a result of an event such as a school
- Give yourself time to heal.
Anticipate that this will be a difficult time
in your life. Allow yourself to mourn the
losses you have experienced. Try to be patient
with changes in your emotional state.
Ask for support from people who care about
you and who will listen and empathize with
your situation. But keep in mind that your
typical support system may be weakened if
those who are close to you also have experienced
or witnessed the trauma.
- Communicate your experience
in whatever ways feel comfortable to you -
such as by talking with family or close friends,
or keeping a diary.
- Find out about local support
groups that often are available such as for
those who have suffered from natural disasters.
These can be especially helpful for people
with limited personal support systems.
Try to find groups led by appropriately trained
and experienced professionals such as psychologists.
Group discussion can help people realize that
other individuals in the same circumstances
often have similar reactions and emotions.
- Engage in healthy behaviors
to enhance your ability to cope with excessive
stress. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty
of rest. If you experience ongoing difficulties
with sleep, you may be able to find some relief
through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol
- Establish or reestablish
routines such as eating meals at regular times
and following an exercise program. This can
be especially important when the normal routines
of daily life are disrupted. Even if you are
in a shelter and unable to return home, establish
routines that can bring comfort. Take some
time off from the demands of daily life by
pursuing hobbies or other enjoyable activities.
- Help those you can. Helping
others, even during your own time of distress,
can give you a sense of control and can make
you feel better about yourself.
- Avoid major life decisions
such as switching careers or jobs if possible
because these activities tend to be highly
When Should I Seek Professional
Many people are able to cope
effectively with the emotional and physical
demands brought about by a natural disaster
by using their own support systems. It is not
unusual, however, to find that serious problems
persist and continue to interfere with daily
living. For example, some may feel overwhelming
nervousness or lingering sadness that adversely
affects job performance and interpersonal relationships.
Individuals with prolonged reactions
that disrupt their daily functioning should
consult with a trained and experienced mental
health professional. Psychologists and other
appropriate mental health providers help educate
people about common responses to extreme stress.
These professionals work with individuals affected
by trauma to help them find constructive ways
of dealing with the emotional impact.
With children, continual and
aggressive emotional outbursts, serious problems
at school, preoccupation with the traumatic
event, continued and extreme withdrawal, and
other signs of intense anxiety or emotional
difficulties all point to the need for professional
assistance. A qualified mental health professional
such as a psychologist can help such children
and their parents understand and deal with thoughts,
feelings and behaviors that result from trauma.
APA is grateful to Paul J. Rosch,
M.D.. President, The American Institute of Stress,
for his help in developing this fact sheet.