The Aftermath of Trauma
Most of us build our lives around the belief that we will be relatively safe. Granted, normal daily life involves many stressors, especially in these hectic times, but we expect these pressures to happen and we become accustomed to handling them. The more flexible we are and the more we know ourselves and are in touch with our abilities, the easier it is to deal with normal everyday stress.
Sometimes, however, any of us could be subjected to catastrophic stress. Our feeling of safety in these circumstances can vanish. We could experience terror and a complete inability to know how to handle these situations that are outside of the ordinary realm of experience. These catastrophic events can include rape, physical or sexual abuse, physical attack, mugging, car-jacking, natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, floods, etc.), fires, car accidents, plane crashes, hostage situations, school shootings, military combat, or the sudden death of a loved one. It is not only the victims of these events, but also witnesses, families of victims, and helping professionals who can develop severe stress symptoms which can last for months or even years after the event.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the term used to characterize people who have endured highly stressful and frightening experiences and who are undergoing distress caused by memories of that event. It is as if the person just cannot let go of the experience. The event comes back to haunt them. The anxiety experienced during or immediately after a catastrophic event is called traumatic stress. When the symptoms last several months after the event, it is called post-traumatic stress. PTSD can last for years after the original trauma and may not become evident initially. For example, an individual may witness a murder as a child, but not experience the associated stress until mid-life.
Some people are more likely to develop PTSD than others. Experts are not sure why some people develop PTSD after a relatively minor trauma while others exposed to great trauma do not. Those who are very young or very old are more vulnerable. PTSD is also associated with intelligence (those with a higher level of intelligence are less likely to suffer from PTSD). Individuals who already suffer from anxiety disorders, some personality disorders or depression seem more likely to get PTSD after extreme trauma. It seems that the more vulnerable one feels in dealing with the world, the more likely one is to develop PTSD.
Trauma of great severity is more likely to produce PTSD than lesser traumas. For example, it was found with Vietnam War veterans that prolonged combat with sniping and air bombardment produced PTSD more often than brief exposure to combat with few weapons. It has also been found that traumas between people (such as sexual assault and muggings) are more likely to produce PTSD than natural disasters like earthquakes or floods.
Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT
San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.