Trauma, PTSD and Complex PTSD
What is trauma?
Trauma is the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event. Sufferers may develop emotional disturbances such as extreme anxiety, anger, sadness, survivor’s guilt or PTSD. They may experience ongoing problems with sleep or physical pain, encounter turbulence in their personal and professional relationships, and feel a diminished sense of self-worth due to the overwhelming amount of stress.
Although the instigating event may overpower coping resources available at the time, it is nevertheless possible to develop healthy ways of coping with the experience and diminishing its effects. Research on trauma identifies several healthy ways of coping, such as avoiding alcohol and drugs, seeing loved ones regularly, exercising, sleeping and paying attention to one’s self-care.
Traumatic experiences often arouse strong, disturbing feelings that may or may not abate on their own. In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, it is common to experience shock or denial. A person may undergo a range of emotional reactions, such as fear, anger, guilt, and shame. Feelings of helplessness and vulnerability are also common. Some may experience flashbacks and other signs of PTSD. Traumatic memories fade naturally with time. Persistence of symptoms is a signal that professional help is needed.
What is PTSD?
Today, PTSD is researched, understood and valued by many as a very real and impactful psychological condition. PTSD is used to describe a range of symptoms people may develop in response to experiencing events outside of their normal range of experiences, such as natural disasters, mass catastrophes or serious accidental injuries.
PTSD is a condition that may involve disturbances that threaten perception, sensitivity, self-image and emotional functioning. It can cause serious disruption in the ability to have healthy, satisfying relationships and tolerate life’s uncertainties, failures and rejections without excessive distress. It can also cause phobias, sleep disturbance, negative mood, anxiety and attention/concentration difficulties that interfere with academic or career success.
What is Complex PTSD?
Many of us are aware of the impact of isolation, and research shows that it can be greatly debilitating in terms of reducing our social skills. Much of our happiness is created by socialising, so isolation is likely to have a significant effect upon us. Some people may experience loneliness, low moods, stress and anxiety. Challenging as it is, it is hoped that most of us will gradually adjust to our new ‘normal’. Others may feel stuck and unable to move on from the trauma of a long period of isolation, so extra support, such as counselling, may be required.
Many people are now reporting a heightened sense of anxiety about COVID-19, not only relating to fears of catching the virus, but also to fears about its short and long-term financial impact upon individuals, companies, and nations.
Anxiety often causes us to feel generally unwell. The extraordinary media coverage of COVID-19 has increased people’s general anxiety and health fears. It is now virtually impossible to escape or ignore shocking announcements on a daily, or even hourly basis concerning the virus. Fears of having contracted COVID-19 can lead to even more anxiety.
Anxiety is often related to not feeling in control of the events in our lives. Right now, may people feel out of control, and also feel that the world is not a safe place.
Another main cause of anxiety is change. In the past few weeks, most of us have experienced radical changes at home and at work, but in some cases, there has been serious upheaval in people’s lives. Change takes us out of our comfort zone, and this makes most of us feel very unsafe. Anxiety is the inevitable result.
Anxiety usually puts us into a state of hypervigilance, which often makes sleeping difficult. When we do not feel refreshed by sleep, the physical sensations of exhaustion and tiredness can feel like a cold or ‘flu. Nowadays, it is understandable that this might lead to worries that the virus has been contracted, and even worse, that we might die, or that we might lose someone we know, love and care about. Excessive worrying can lead to panic or panic attacks.
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Making Positive Changes
We do not need to be resigned to unhealthy habits and thoughts. Life today has been lived at a fast pace for many, and some individuals can barely reflect on what they do, let alone on how they think. So, it may be an opportunity to make positive changes in your life! Perhaps you may have been considering change for some time, or perhaps changes are imperative for your wellbeing at the present moment. You may find that you have a lot of extra time on your hands and an opportunity to reflect on the positive changes you want to make in your life, without overthinking.
Part of the process of making positive change is to consider how we think and feel about, and react to, certain situations. It is common to feel overwhelmed: the brain goes into overdrive and the situation can feel much worse than it actually is. This greatly reduces our ability to think rationally and we are often left with irrational thoughts. The key is to recognise the triggers and bodily sensations of anxiety at an early stage, so that you can deal with them before you become overwhelmed.
Making simple changes to the way you think and behave could have a positive impact on your life. I suggest the following coping mechanisms to help make those changes:
1. Simply talking to a friend or family member can effectively reduce anxiety. It is important to remember that you will not sound silly and that many people will share your feelings, especially at the present time.
2. If you are finding it hard to speak to anyone, it can be beneficial to seek professional support.
3. Mediation, mindfulness and yoga are extremely helpful for recognising what is happening in our bodies and recognising early warning signs of anxiety.
4. Mediation, mindfulness, yoga and general exercise are especially useful for managing symptoms of stress in the longer term, but are also great tools to use in the current circumstances.
5. For some people, pursuing interests such as music, gardening, cooking or art can also reduce symptoms. What is important is that you find what works for you.
6. Assess your threat. When you feel overwhelmed with worry or fear, it is sometimes helpful to inform yourself of the facts to assess your personal level of threat.
7. Identify what you can do. When we encounter stress, it is important to ask ourselves if we can do anything about it. If there is some action we can take, then taking that action will help reduce our anxiety.
8. Accept what you cannot control. Focus on what you can do and not on what you cannot do. There will always be variables that are out of your control, and this is part of what makes COVID-19 so frightening. Sometimes, the healthiest thing we can do is accept that there is nothing we can do. Worrying, complaining, ruminating and wishing things were different are thoughts we will entertain, but if we focus on them too much, they will amplify our stress.
9. Humour is a natural stress-management tool. It enables us to minimise and cope with stress. Laughter relieves anxiety, lowers stress hormones, and helps us to calm down. I cannot tell you how to find humour in your own situation, but as much as we can, we need to laugh and just take it easy.
“That every individual has the capacity to be fully functioning person if the power of the person is given recognition.Carl Rogers