Julie Watts, Clinical Psychologist

At times in people lives they may experience an event that we would describe as traumatic this is usually an event that involves serious injury or threat to life. It may include an assault, sexual or physical abuse, car or work accident, natural disaster, being a victim of torture or war, a serious medical illness or operation (including labour). It can also include witnessing such events. Some people may also have experienced trauma in childhood that they may never have disclosed that may be re-activated or exacerbated by another traumatic event later in their lives.

There are a number of common responses to such an event, which can include: shock and disbelief, feeling numb, fears about a recurrence or safety for oneself or others, anger, guilt, sleep disturbance, dreams and nightmares, feeling agitated and easily startled, frequent thoughts or images of the events, social withdrawal and decreased interest in activities (including work).

Useful ways to care for yourself include gradually trying to get back to a normal routine but pace yourself, including gentle exercise and healthy diet. Try to avoid using alcohol or drugs to block out thoughts or numb the pain, this will lead to other problems in the longer term. It is useful to accept that the intrusive thoughts are part of your brain trying to make sense of the experience and if you can allow them to come and go they will diminish usually within a few weeks. You may need time alone but try not to isolate yourself, seek support from others you feel you can confide in. Make time out for relaxation particularly prior to going to sleep. Some people may find it helpful to talk through the experience which can assist to be able to put the experience into perspective and manage reactions such as anger, guilt, or helplessness.

For many people these symptoms will resolve without intervention but for others they may develop into an ongoing problem known as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD include: persistent intrusive thoughts or images of the event, recurrent dreams of the event, flashbacks where people feel they are re-experiencing the event, physical arousal especially on reminders of the event, sleep disturbance, difficulty concentrating, hyper vigilance and being easily startled. It is also common to experience a sense of numbness, decreased interest in activities, feeling detached or distant from others, and difficulty recalling important aspects of the trauma. People frequently will try to avoid any thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma or activities and places that remind them of the trauma. These symptoms can be very disabling and lead to significant problems in work and relationships, and frequently lead to avoidance of many activities. It is very important to seek treatment and these problems can last for many years without help.