From Dr. Jane's Notebook
What’s post-traumatic stress?
Few of us were left unscathed by last month’s attack on America. Whether we
were physically in New York and Washington, or thousands of miles away, the
ongoing story of this tragedy echoed through most of our homes, neighborhoods
and workplaces. We identified with the victims, worried about their families,
felt the fear of a surprise attack, and we absorbed a lot of stress.
Since September 11, 2001, I have spoken with few people who have not
mentioned this trauma. Most of us have been on edge as if waiting for the
other shoe to fall, and without realizing it, many of us have been
experiencing post-traumatic stress. At this point, you may be asking,
"How do I know if I have post-traumatic stress?"
Further, you may be asking "How can I get over it". To answer
these questions, consider the following ideas.
- Stress manifests in a variety of Physical Symptoms. Body
symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, muscle tremors, twitches, difficulty
breathing, elevated blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, headaches,
visual difficulties, nausea or vomiting, thirst, hunger, dizziness,
excessive sweating, chills, weakness, and fainting. If you’ve noticed a
change in your physical energy level, your body is sending you a message. As
with the common cold, we can choose to rest at the first sign of that cold,
or ignore our symptoms until they make us lie down. Since
post-traumatic stress is not within our conscious control, it is important
to respect our symptoms and get some extra rest, lest our symptoms get
- Post-traumatic stress effects our mental functioning.
Traumatic events often change the way we think. Every action causes a
reaction and traumatic surprises can result in a greater tendency to blame
others, confusion, poor attention, inability to make decisions, heightened
or decreased alertness, poor concentration, forgetfulness, trouble with
recognition, distraction, poor problem solving, disorientation, disturbed
thinking, images, nightmares, flashbacks, disbelief, suicidal ideas, a
change in values or a new search for meaning. Unfortunately, people
sometimes hesitate to share their abnormal thoughts for fear that others
will call them crazy, when the truth is that talking about our disturbances
is what helps us return to more normal thought patterns. In general, scary
thoughts are most harmful to us when we keep them locked up inside ourselves
and pretend that everything is fine.
- Trauma distorts our emotions. People have been known to
report anxiety, survivor guilt, grief, denial, panic, fear of loss, fear of
going crazy, self-doubt, loss of emotional control, numbness, depression,
lack of enjoyment, apprehension, intense anger, irritability, agitation, a
sense of helplessness, worthlessness, mistrust, apathy or boredom. Even for
those who regularly experience these emotions, these feelings may be
intensified following a critical incident. To counteract these exaggerated
emotions, dispute your fears, count your blessings, and offer help to
someone who is in worse shape than yourself. This is a great time to
practice random acts of kindness.
- Crises cause changes in our behaviors. Unintentionally, we
may find ourselves changing our normal activities, changing our speech
patterns, or withdrawing from others. Commonly, people display emotional
outbursts, become unusually suspicious, restless, abuse substances, startle
easily, become antisocial, pace, develop erratic movements, decrease their
personal hygiene, experience a loss of sex drive or disturbance in appetite,
grow silent or become more accident prone. As with other symptoms, awareness
is the best way to recover. If you’re not eating, force yourself to
maintain good nutrition; if you’re becoming more accident prone, be more
careful! Don’t be afraid to consult with your doctor about your distress.
It is not healthy to endure a lack of sleep, restlessness, and other body
disturbances. If anything, this is a critical time to take care of your body
to prevent further deterioration.
Recovery from trauma is best achieved through rest, a healthy diet, exercise,
sticking with your familiar routine, talking with supportive family and friends,
leisure activities, focusing on one thing at a time, seeking professional
therapy when needed, and most of all, allowing yourself to feel what you feel.
It is not helpful to self-medicate with alcohol (because it further depresses
you), not helpful to pretend that everything is okay, and not helpful to stay
away from work or your regular activities. Further, given the thoroughness of
today’s media coverage, trust that whatever happens, you will be informed! Don’t
overindulge in television news stories. In this case, re-runs are not only
boring, they’re depressing and can easily poison our minds.
©Copyright, 2001, Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. All rights reserved.
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