What is Post Traumatic Stress?

A collection of reactions - feelings, thoughts, behaviour - which are experienced following a sudden distressing event which is outside the range of normal everyday human experience. It is the unexpectedness of the incident which seems to evoke the stress because it undermines one's trust in normalcy - one can never quite believe in an ordered existence any more. Incidents that can sometimes lead to signs of PTS include such things as burglary, an attack or an accident.


When does it occur and to whom?

Signs of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), such as those listed below, may not appear for days, weeks or months after the event, and can affect those not directly involved in an incident - e.g. to those who witness an accident, or to rescue workers, or to relatives of those involved.


Why does it occur?

It is the way by which our mind and body 'processes' the event, to try to make sense of it, so that we can eventually react to it in a less distressing way. The processing is often made apparent through physical, emotional and psychological signs.


Signs and symptoms

Recurrent intrusive recollections of the event

Changes in sleep (e.g. not being able to sleep, or wanting to sleep all the time)

Recurrent vivid dreams about the event

Feeling or behaving as if the event were happening again

Changes in behaviour (e.g. short temper)

Changes in feelings about yourself (e.g. feeling useless)

Numbed responses

Changes in work effectiveness (e.g. poor concentration)

Reduced interest in the external world (e.g. feelings of detachment and estrangement)

A sense of always needing to be ultra-alert

A sense of being vulnerable, leading to a fear of losing control

Avoidance of activities and / or places which arouse recollections of the event

Forgetting an important aspect of the event

Guilt at surviving, or for things not done


Post traumatic stress is different from a bereavement reaction (in that it is about a stress reaction to a perceived threat) although the two can occur together and inter-link. It is also linked with depression, in that 30% of those in whom the condition is not recognised and dealt with early go on to develop depression.


How does your body help you cope?

Numbness: At first you may be numb because your mind will only gradually allow you to feel the experience. So the event may feel unreal, as if it couldn't have happened to you. But as you allow your experiences to become more real in your mind, there is a need to think about the event, to talk about it, and at night to dream about it over and over again.

Activity: To be active, maybe through helping and giving to others may give some relief. And doing things routinely can give a sense of bringing life back to normal.

But both of these 'natural' ways of coping have inherent risks. Some people seek refuge in numbness by avoiding any reminder of the trauma - and so it is never dealt with. And over-activity is also a way of diverting attention from the fact that you might need help yourself.


How can you help yourself?

Keep in touch with information about the event and any developments. This keeps the trauma 'real' and helps you come to terms with what has happened and how it has affected you.

It can be a relief to receive other people's physical and emotional support, even though part of you might want to reject it as part of wanting to deny what has happened. Sharing with others who have had similar experiences can feel good, barriers can break down and close relationships develop.

As well as being with other people, you will sometimes want to be alone in order to deal with your feelings: privacy (as opposed to isolation) is important.

Some Do's and Don'ts




bottle up feelings


express your emotions


avoid talking about what happened


take opportunities to review the experience with yourself and others


let embarrassment stop you giving others as well as yourself the chance to talk


take time out to sleep, rest, think, and be with close friends and family


expect the memories to go away: the feelings will stay with you for a considerable time


express your needs clearly and honestly to friends, family, tutors, colleagues etc.


try to keep your life as normal as possible after the experience


be careful: accidents are more common after experiencing severe stress.