We all experience intensely stressful, frightening and distressing situations during the course of our lives, yet not all would be considered traumatic events. An experience can be described as traumatic when our normal ability to cope has been overwhelmed by a terrible life event.
There are many different types of traumatic events, such as:
A serious accident
Physical or sexual assault
Losing a baby
A life-threatening illness
Being in a war or terrorist attack
Experiencing torture, violence or abuse
All of these profoundly distressing, traumatic life events and many others, can cause stress and trauma-related reactions – and specifically Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
Also, life events that are more common – such as the end of a long-term relationship, divorce, redundancy, the death of someone we love – can cause extreme stress and distress, and touch our deepest vulnerabilities.
It is important to understand that traumatic experiences can trigger complex neuro-chemical processes in the brain and body systems. There is a wide range of different reactions that can be experienced in response to traumatic and deeply stressful life events and situations. Everyone responds differently and there is no clear pattern that applies to all.
However, there are some common reactions, that can be categorised into four main groups of symptoms. You might recognise some or all of these…
Common Stress & Trauma-Related Reactions
Re-experiencing the event: You might experience intrusive memories, images, nightmares, perceptions, emotions and sensations. You may feel as if you are re-living the distressing event with all your senses – flashbacks are an example of this. They are unwanted and intrusive memories that are experienced as if the event or parts of the event were happening all over again. Flashbacks can be very distressing and can make you feel as if you are losing control or as if you are ‘going mad’.
Avoidance reactions: are a way of trying to avoid anything that might remind you of the traumatic event. You may avoid people, places, situations, activities, or anything that is associated with and reminds you of the traumatic experience. The problem is that avoidance behaviours increasingly narrow and limit your world and your range of life experiences.
Negative changes in mood and thought patterns: You might experience low moods and emotionally shut down. The traumatic event may have changed your outlook on life and your mindset. You may have lost trust in yourself, others and the world around you. You may have lost your sense of safety and now believe that ‘the world is a dangerous place’, or that ‘people can’t be trusted’. You might withdraw and disengage from life and people, you normally care about. You might feel predominantly negative emotions and find it difficult to experience joy, contentment and happiness.
Arousal reactions: Trauma gets into the body. The post-traumatic stress reaction of high arousal can be experienced as feeling nervous, agitated, anxious and unsafe. You might be unable to concentrate or sleep. This arousal response is like the nervous system getting stuck on ‘red alert’. This happens because parts of the brain don’t function normally at this point due to high levels of stress hormones being released.
It is very common for most people who have experienced trauma to have some of these reactions. They can range from acute and transient symptoms to more severe and long-lasting symptoms.
A number of psychological conditions can develop following a traumatic experience or in response to a very stressful life event. It can be confusing to make sense of these different conditions and the differences between them.
For the sake of clarity, I will briefly outline…
The Most Common Trauma Conditions
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Traumatic events can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD. PTSD is a term given to a range and combination of responses following a trauma. If you continue to experience many or most of the symptoms described above for longer than a month, you may have developed PTSD.
The diagnosis will depend on how many reactions you experience in each of the four symptom groups outlined above; how often you experience them and how severe and debilitating these are for you.
It requires specialist training, time and experience to properly and professionally diagnose PTSD.
There are a number of other trauma or stress-related conditions that occur in response to a traumatic or stressful life event…
Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)
The experience of this is similar to PTSD, but the symptoms have been present for less than a month after a traumatic event.
ASD can develop into PTSD if the symptoms persist for more than four weeks.
This maybe diagnosed when you develop a range of disturbing emotional and behavioural symptoms in response to a significant stressful life event.
It could be in response to a single stressful event, for example redundancy, retirement, divorce, separation or the death of a loved one.
It could also develop in the context of multiple or recurrent stressors, for example a painful and enduring illness, ongoing and marked stress in relation to professional or occupational difficulties.
Complex PTSD & Developmental Trauma (CPTSD)
CPTSD is associated with repeated, enduring or prolonged trauma, for example ongoing domestic violence or torture.
It might also be diagnosed if there has been developmental trauma such as childhood sexual, physical, or consistent emotional abuse and neglect, affecting your ability to trust and feel safe in your life.
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition where you experience some symptoms of PTSD in addition to a difficulty controlling your emotions, feeling distrustful towards others and the world.
As a general guideline, the more severe, persistent, repeated or early in life your trauma was, the more impact it is likely to have had on you. The severity of trauma and the impact it has had on you, will inform the psychological treatment options. It requires a clinician with sound professional training and experience to diagnose this condition.
Do you recognise any of the above symptoms or resonate with some of the conditions outlined?
If you are currently experiencing some or all of the symptoms – and you have experienced trauma or an intensely stressful life event – you might be suffering from PTSD or a post-traumatic stress reaction.
If this is the case, you may also feel that some of your previously held beliefs about life have been shattered, and that the sense of safety that once underpinned your everyday experiences has gone. You might feel as if the trauma has become a permanent part of your life, even though it happened months or even years ago.
All of this may leave you feeling alone and in a state of inner turmoil.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
If You Are in the Grip of Trauma You Are Not Alone!
According to the National Health Service (NHS), 1 in 3 people exposed to a highly stressful event will develop a post-traumatic stress reaction.
You may be surprised and relieved to learn that you are not unique in experiencing this, but that you are experiencing a common and understandable response to trauma. It may also be comforting to realise that you can be helped to heal and recover.
Traumatic experiences can shatter our lives and profoundly unsettle and disturb our sense of identity, safety and balance. Traumas not only cause physical injuries, but emotional injuries as well. Being traumatised by a life event – in which intense feelings of fear, horror and helplessness are evoked – can result in flashbacks, nightmares or ruminations about the event. This can be very disruptive to day-to-day life.
Being in the grip of trauma is a terrible state to be in. Fortunately, it is possible to get trauma help and treatment.
Arranging PTSD counselling is an important step in your recovery. I am a clinical psychologist & trauma specialist and can guide you through this process. In time, I will be able to help you better understand, manage and gradually heal your trauma symptoms – leaving you with an improved sense of peace, safety and emotional stability.
Contact me today for a FREE, 15-20 minute online PTSD counselling consultation where we can start to talk about your challenges. Together we can begin to formulate the right plan of action for you.
How PTSD Treatment Works – Starting Your Recovery
With my professional help, you will have the opportunity to begin your recovery process. Trauma-focused Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) for Post-Traumatic Stress Reactions is one of the most effective therapeutic frameworks for healing from trauma.
It is aimed at helping you to work through, process and make sense of your experience. In my clinical work with clients, I have found that the therapeutic process tends to involve three stages.
The initial stage of CBT for trauma is about preparing your path to recovery. The focus of this phase is emotional stabilisation. This might involve supporting you to create an environment that facilitates your recovery process.
As part of this, we might explore aspects of your self-care – what supports you and what might be in the way of your recovery.
Also, we will focus on facilitating a better understanding of your post-traumatic stress symptoms. Understanding and making sense of your trauma reactions is the first step towards containing your emotions and beginning to feel more in control.
When you have reached a point at which you feel more emotionally stabilised, we will move into the second stage of the therapeutic process. It involves gradually revisiting traumatic images, scenes and memories.
In this phase, you are likely to experience strong feeling and even some physical reactions that you experienced during the trauma. This is a normal and necessary part of the healing process. Why? Because in order to resolve and heal post-traumatic stress symptoms, it is vital that all aspects of the traumatic events are psychologically processed.
Your work with me will support you in developing skills to help you manage strong and uncomfortable feeling states associated with the traumatic event.
Also, you will be invited to recognise avoidance reactions, which are a common response to trauma. It is a way of trying to control your strong and overwhelming feelings. Whilst it may make sense on one level to avoid emotional and physical discomfort, in the long run, it is not helpful. Avoidance patterns limit your life and your freedom to do things that you previously enjoyed.
This phase of the PTSD treatment can be challenging. It also is the time when many of my clients have made significant improvements and experienced considerable relief.
This stage is about consolidating and maintaining the therapeutic gains achieved. We will also look at relapse prevention, which is an important aspect of the overall recovery process.
The overall aim of the psychological work can be described as a maturation and development in your capacity to accept, process, reflect and integrate painful and deeply uncomfortable emotional states that occur in the aftermath of trauma.
In my experience, once you have come to understand and accept what is involved in trauma therapy, the outcome is likely to be very rewarding.
Meet Kirsten. . .
I am a Chartered Clinical Psychologist with many years of experience in providing trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT).
My professional career involved more than 25 years of study and clinical work.
I have been able to help many people who suffered from post-traumatic stress symptoms and conditions, such as PTSD.
One of my clients put it like this:
‘Without the work Kirsten and I did together, I would not have made the progress I’ve made. My time spent with Kirsten was more than achieving recovery. It was about building resilience, learning skills to better face trauma in the future. Kirsten has given me the gift of inner awareness and emotional maturity. The ability to not only accept my emotional vulnerabilities, but to embrace them, and not be afraid to allow those close to me to see them’.
Get Relief with PTSD Counselling
Contact me today for a FREE, 15-20 minute, online PTSD counselling consultation, if you are looking for PTSD support and would like to begin the process of recovery.