Post-traumatic stress

A trauma is an event that overwhelms our ability to cope. People who experience or witness a traumatic event may need help to get over its effect on them.

Traumatic events can have a profound effect on the people who experience or witness them. Traumatic events include such things as vehicle accidents, natural disasters, sudden or significant losses, sexual or physical attacks, witnessing a death or an accident, or a suicide attempt by a friend or family member. Sometimes people experience reactions to traumatic events—this is known as 'Post-traumatic stress'. Post-traumatic stress is a normal reaction to a very abnormal event—something that outside our usual experience and hard to take in.

People respond to traumatic events differently, but there are normally strong emotions and reactions associated with traumatic experiences. These include but are not limited to:

  • Physical reactions—insomnia, nightmares, exhaustion, headaches, diarrhoea, fatigue, loss of appetite.
  • Cognitive reactions—difficulty with concentration, problem solving and making decisions, memory disturbances, flashbacks to the event.
  • Emotional reactions—emotional numbness, fear, guilt, sadness, self-blame, irritability, anxiety, depression, helplessness, shame.
  • Behavioural reactions—changes in activity levels, social withdrawal, difficulty relaxing, risky behaviour, increased use of drugs and alcohol, self-harm.

These reactions may appear at the time of the traumatic event, but can appear months or even years later.

Most people naturally want to avoid the intense emotions and reactions that can occur after a traumatic event. They may go to great lengths to avoid situations which remind them of the event. Alcohol and drugs may bring temporary relief, but these substances may also intensify reactions arising from trauma.

Sometimes people think they should be able to just "get over it". However, because of the intensity of traumatic events, "getting over it" takes time.

Strategies that help

  • Recognise that you've experienced a traumatic event and it's normal to be affected by it.
  • Tell helpful friends and family members. If you feel shaky, seek supportive company.
  • Maintain your normal routines as much as possible.
  • Do some physical activity.
  • Rest more.
  • Eat regularly.
  • Avoid excessive use of alcohol and drugs.
  • Be gentle with yourself. Reduce stress where possible.
  • Consider getting some professional help, either from Student Counselling, or through an external service.