Anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as a car accident, military action, a terrorist attack, rape, or some other act of violence, undergoes severe stress related to the incident. Many people recover on their own, although it often takes time. Sometimes, professional help is needed.
People who feel they're unable to regain control of their lives because of their responses to the trauma may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms vary and can appear immediately after the event, or days, weeks, or even months later. PTSD has been linked to other mental illnesses. It can occur with depression or lead to depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association. People with PTSD may not be aware that they are affected by it.
Anyone who experiences several of the following symptoms may have PTSD and should seek professional help, says the PTSD Alliance:
Recurring thoughts or nightmares about the event; "flashbacks," accompanied by painful emotions
Trouble sleeping because of nightmares
Anxiety and fear, especially when exposed to situations reminiscent of the trauma
Being on edge, being easily startled or overly alert
Feeling depressed or sad and having low energy
Feeling "scattered" and unable to focus on work or daily activities; difficulty making decisions
Feeling irritable, easily agitated, or resentful
Feeling emotionally "numb," withdrawn, or disconnected from others, and avoiding close emotional ties with family, friends, and coworkers
Spontaneously crying, feeling a sense of despair and hopelessness
Feeling that danger is constantly near and being extremely protective of, or fearful for, the safety of loved ones
Reaction to trauma depends on a number of things, including the person’s age, personality, and exposure to trauma in the past.
The following actions can help you recover from PTSD:
Seek professional help right away. The longer a person with PTSD goes without treatment, the harder it can be to heal. The best place to start is to see a psychiatrist or other health care provider to confirm the diagnosis and evaluate your need for medication. Employee-assistance programs, police departments, health care providers, and crisis hotlines can recommend counselors (therapists) in your area. A therapist may teach relaxation techniques, help you understand and change the mental processes that lead to PTSD, and can provide a safe place for you and your family to talk about and learn to cope with your PTSD. He or she can also help you find a health care provider if you haven’t yet seen one.
Be patient with yourself. Realize this will be a difficult time in your life. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you've experienced.
Talk about it. People who have experienced tragedy need to work through their pain. Often this means telling the same story over and over for days, weeks, or even months. Depending on the event that triggered your PTSD, however, it may be best to talk to a therapist about issues related to the experience itself. Counselors are more likely than friends or family to understand trauma and its effects.
Spend time with others. Attend a place of worship, book club, exercise class, or other gatherings as often as you can.
Eat a healthy diet, exercise, and try to get enough sleep. When you're stressed, you're more susceptible to illness. Eating a well-balanced diet and getting adequate sleep can help you stay well. Regular exercise can relieve depression and stress.
Practice relaxation methods. These can include full-body relaxation or breathing exercises, meditation, stretching, yoga, listening to quiet music, and spending time in nature settings.
Join a support group. Being in a group with other people who have PTSD may help reduce isolation and rebuild your trust in others.
Avoid negative coping actions. These include using drugs or alcohol, workaholism, violent behavior, and angry intimidation of others. These may seem to help by giving immediate relief, but worsen the illness and make recovery more difficult.
Get involved. Volunteer to help at the American Red Cross, AmeriCares, or other charitable organizations. Helping others can give you a sense of purpose in a time of uncertainty.