Normal responses to an abnormal event:
When a traumatic event occurs, a certain set of responses tend to follow.
Firstly, you may find yourself avoiding reminders of the event. This could include avoiding certain people or places and trying not to think about what happened.
The trouble with avoiding thinking about the event is that it means we can’t process it. When a memory is not fully processed, it remains raw and easily triggered by sounds, smells and colours.
You may find yourself experiencing flashbacks, in the form of intrusive involuntary images which cause the person to recall the event as if it is happening again in the present. This is different from remembering what happened. This is highly distressing and leads people to try even harder to stop thinking about it, which results in a vicious cycle of trying but being unable to avoid thinking about it.
Other common responses to a trauma fall under the hyper-vigilance umbrella. When a terrifying incident(s) occurs, it leaves our brain and body is a state of constant alert, expecting and assessing for another threat any moment, and activates the fight or flight response in the body. This sustained activation of the fight or flight response is typically experienced as anxiety or stress and can be exhausting. Being hyper-vigilant to threat can manifest itself in irritability and anger, difficulty sleeping, decreased concentration and being easily startled.
Changes in mood and thinking are also often evident. People may find they no longer find pleasure in activities they enjoyed prior to the trauma. Negative thoughts about oneself and the world and a distorted sense of blame often result.
The brain needs time to process the event and to make some sense of what happened. Symptoms of intrusions, nightmares, avoidance and being hypervigilant typically take 4 weeks to dissipate. If these experiences remain after 4 weeks, this may be indicative of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
If these experiences don’t resolve themselves within 4 weeks, it’s advisable to see a psychologist with specific trauma-focused training. Certain generic psychological approaches are not recommended for PTSD – make sure you receive the right help from the right person. Trauma-focused CBT and EMDR are psychological treatments recommended by the World Health Organization, UK and US guidelines for good practice.
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