Natural disasters and other catastrophic events, such as motor vehicle accidents, plane crashes, nuclear meltdowns, and terrorist attacks, are extraordinarily stressful—both to survivors and observers. Such disasters shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world.
Whether or not you were directly impacted by the traumatic event, it's normal to feel anxious, scared, and uncertain about what the future may bring.
These emotional reactions often come and go in waves. There may be times when you feel jumpy and anxious, and other times when you feel disconnected and numb. Normal emotional responses to traumatic events include:
Shock and disbelief: You may have a hard time accepting the reality of what happened
- Fear: That the same thing will happen again, or that you'll lose control or break down
- Sadness: Particularly if people you know died
- Helplessness: The sudden, unpredictable nature of natural disasters and accidents may leave you feeling vulnerable
- Guilt: That you survived when others died, or that you could have done more to help or prevent the situation
- Anger: You may be angry at God or others you feel are responsible
- Shame: Especially over feelings or fears you can't control
- Relief: You may feel relieved that the worst is over, and even hopeful that your life will return to normal.
These emotions aren't cause for undue alarm. Most will start to fade within a relatively short time. However, if your traumatic stress reaction is so intense and persistent that it's getting in the way of your ability to function, you may need to seek help.
Traumatic Stress Warning Signs:
- It's been 6 weeks, and you're not feeling any better
- You've having trouble functioning at home and work
? You're experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
- You're having an increasingly difficult time connecting and relating to others
- You're experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings
- You're avoiding more and more things that remind you of the disaster or traumatic event
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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
If trauma-related feelings such as distress, fear, helplessness, guilt, shame, or anger last for more than a month, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a traumatic event.
PTSD is a real problem and can happen at any age. If you have PTSD, you are not alone. It affects nearly eight million American adults.
Who can get PTSD?
- Anyone who was a victim of, witnessed, or has been exposed to a life-threatening situation.
- Survivors of violent acts, such as domestic violence, rape, sexual, physical and/or verbal abuse or physical attacks.
- Survivors of unexpected dangerous events, such as a car accident, natural disaster, or terrorist attack.
- Combat veterans or civilians exposed to war.
- People who have learned of or experienced an unexpected and sudden death of a friend or relative.
- Emergency responders who help victims during traumatic events.
- Children who are neglected and/or abused (physically, sexually or verbally).
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
For many people, symptoms begin almost right away after the trauma happens. For others, the symptoms may not begin or may not become a problem until years later. Symptoms of PTSD may include:
- Repeatedly thinking about the trauma: You may find that thoughts about the trauma come to mind even when you don't want them to. You might also have nightmares or flashbacks about the trauma or may become upset when something reminds you of the event.
- Being constantly alert or on guard: You may be easily startled or angered, irritable or anxious and preoccupied with staying safe. You may also find it hard to concentrate or sleep or have physical problems, like constipation, diarrhea, rapid breathing, muscle tension or rapid heart rate.
- Avoiding reminders of the trauma: You may not want to talk about the event or be around people or places that remind you of the event. You also may feel emotionally numb, detached from friends and family, and lose interest in activities.
- Panic attacks: A feeling of intense fear, with shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, nausea and racing heart.
- Physical symptoms: Chronic pain, headaches, stomach pain, diarrhea, tightness or burning in the chest, muscle cramps or low back pain.
- Feelings of mistrust: Losing trust in others and thinking the world is a dangerous place.
- Problems in daily living: Having problems functioning in your job, at school, or in social situations.
- Substance abuse: Using drugs or alcohol to cope with the emotional pain.
- Relationship problems: Having problems with intimacy, or feeling detached from your family and friends.
- Depression: Persistent sad, anxious or empty mood; loss of interest in once-enjoyed activities; feelings of guilt and shame; or hopelessness about the future. Other symptoms of depression may also develop.
- Suicidal thoughts: Thoughts about taking one's own life. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
How Can I Feel Better?
PTSD can be treated with success. Treatment and support are critical to your recovery. Although your memories won't go away, you can learn how to manage your response to these memories and the feelings they bring up. You can also reduce the frequency and intensity of your reactions. The following information may be of help to you.
Although it may seem painful to face the trauma you went through, doing so with the help of a mental health professional can help you get better. There are different types of therapy.
Such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, is used to treat the symptoms of PTSD. It lowers anxiety and depression and helps with other symptoms. Sedatives can help with sleep problems. Anti-anxiety medicine may also help.
This form of therapy, led by a mental health professional, involves groups of four to 12 people with similar issues to talk about. Talking to other survivors of trauma can be a helpful step in your recovery. You can share your thoughts to help resolve your feelings, gain confidence in coping with your memories and symptoms and find comfort in knowing you're not alone.
Recovering from PTSD is an ongoing process. But there are healthy steps you can take to help you recover and stay well. Discover which ones help you feel better and add them to your life.
- Connect with friends and family: It's easy to feel alone when you've been through a trauma and are not feeling well. But isolation can make you feel worse. Talking to your friends and family can help you get the support you need. Studies show that having meaningful social and family connections in your life can have a positive impact on your health and healing.
- Relax: Each person has his or her own ways to relax. They may include listening to soothing music, reading a book or taking a walk. You can also relax by deep breathing, yoga, meditation, or massage therapy. Avoid using drugs, alcohol or smoking to relax.
- Exercise: Exercise relieves your tense muscles, improves your mood and sleep, and boosts your energy and strength. In fact, research shows that exercise can ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Try to do a physical activity three to five days a week for 30 minutes each day. If this is too long for you, try to exercise for 10 to 15 minutes to get started.
- Get enough rest: Getting enough sleep helps you cope with your problems better, lowers your risk for illness and helps you recover from the stresses of the day. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Visit the Sleep Foundation for tips on getting a better night's sleep.
- Keep a journal: Writing down your thoughts can be a great way to work through issues. Researchers have found that writing about painful events can reduce stress and improve health.
- Refrain from using drugs and alcohol: Although using drugs and alcohol may seem to help you cope, it can make your symptoms worse, delay your treatment and recovery, and can cause abuse or addiction problems.
- Limit caffeine: In some people, caffeine can trigger anxiety. Caffeine may also disturb your sleep.
- Help others: Reconnect to your community by volunteering. Research shows that volunteering builds social networks, improves self-esteem, and can provide a sense of purpose and achievement.
- Limit TV watching: If watching the news or other programs bothers you, limit the amount of time you watch. Try not to listen to disturbing news before going to sleep. It might keep you from falling asleep right away.
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Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Resources
General Mental Health Resources
The menu on the right will link you to information on specific mental health topics. -->
Below are additional links to excellent websites for mental health information:
- Go Ask Alice: Website operated by Columbia University to answer the questions of college students on issues related to physical health, mental health, and sexuality.
- Half Of Us: This engaging youth-oriented site uses video stories of students and high-profile artists to increase awareness about mental health issues and the importance of getting help.
- Healthyminds.org: This website of the American Psychiatric Association offers a broad array of information on topics related to mental health.
- Helpguide: Website operated by a non-profit organization offers information and resources on a broad range of mental health topics.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): An advocacy group for people living with mental illness and their loved ones. Good source of information and resources on mental health topics.
- ReachOut.com: An information and support service using evidence based principles and technology to help teens and young adults facing tough times and struggling with mental health issues.
- ULifeLine.org: An online resource for college students with information about protecting your emotional health and what to do if you or friends are struggling with mental health issues.
- Student Health 101