If you have experienced a traumatic event, it’s entirely normal to be shaken up by it; in fact, it would be abnormal not to be. However, each person processes trauma in different ways, and for some, recurring flashbacks can turn into chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can become debilitating. Recognizing the symptoms of PTSD so that it can be treated early on is key to being able to overcome it in the long term, so being aware of the signs is the first step. PTSD symptoms can show up soon after an event or not manifest themselves until months or even years later. Maintaining a healthy awareness of your mental state after a trauma will help you to prevent symptoms from becoming worse and interfering with day-to-day activities.
Flashbacks, Thoughts, and Memories
One prevalent symptom of PTSD is flashbacks triggered by an event that reminds a person of the initial trauma. For example, a person who has experienced a car accident may have flashbacks when witnessing a car accident or the aftereffects of one on the side of the road. Sometimes, PTSD presents itself in the form of a memory or simply a thought that is distressing; while not triggering a full flashback, the person may return to the initial feeling of fear or panic that was experienced along with the event. Often, PTSD sufferers have upsetting thoughts off and on from day to day that may seem unrelated but can stem from the trauma and pain or anxiety that the person went through in the past.
Memories and flashbacks can also present themselves in the form of dreams and nightmares. What a person’s brain tells them during dreams is a clear indicator of what’s going on in the subconscious; therefore, a person may not even realize he or she is experiencing PTSD until waking up in terror during the night. Sometimes, a person will have recurring dreams about the traumatic event even without experiencing flashbacks during the day. For children, nightmares can occur frequently with PTSD, sometimes including bedwetting or other nighttime issues.
Emotional and Physical Responses
While one may not think an emotional response to stress or trauma can trigger a physical reaction, the two are indelibly connected and are impossible to separate. For some, prolonged symptoms of PTSD can trigger self-destructive habits, from substance abuse to self-harm to suicidal thoughts if left untreated. Sufferers often look for ways to self-medicate, seeking a way to escape the pain and harmful memories associated with trauma. Others may experience feelings of jitteriness or edginess, accentuated by insomnia or non-restful sleep. Still others may feel hyper-alert, fearful of any situation that may involve danger or trouble. Irritability is a common thread among all these symptoms, as well as heightened anger and aggressiveness. In children, some of the same symptoms may present as well as the child reenacting the event as a way of dealing with the trauma.
PTSD sufferers, like those who experience anxiety or depression, are susceptible to mood swings and changes as a prominent symptom. In fact, the three are closely related in that PTSD can often cause depression, anxiety, or both, especially when the symptoms are left untreated. Some sufferers feel a sense of detachment from relationships and activities and have difficulties relating to family and friends. Negative thoughts and a hopeless feeling are also characteristic of PTSD, especially when a person reports lack of emotion or feeling numb.
Another common occurrence for PTSD sufferers is having trouble with memory and concentration, especially when it comes to memories of the actual event. Sometimes a person’s brain blocks out trauma in an attempt to deal with the experience, but the subconscious remembers and reveals symptoms in the form of memory issues and lack of focus. Also, some may feel overly guilty or have increased negative thoughts about himself or herself, the future, or life in general.
Naturally, a person who has been through a trauma does not want to repeat or relive it, so some deal with it by avoiding thinking or talking about it. Some may try to pretend it never occurred, even trying to convince themselves of this fact. Oftentimes a person will avoid a person, place, or object that triggers memories of the event; for example, if a person talked to a specific friend immediately after the event, talking to that person may bring up bad memories associated with the trauma even though that person may not have been involved. Sometimes a sufferer will even try to avoid experiencing a certain feeling he or she may have experienced in connection with the event. While these behaviors of avoidance are natural, they only serve to keep the sufferer from dealing with the emotions and symptoms of the event, preventing him or her from processing it in such a way to be able to move on and return to normal, everyday activities and functioning.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD can and will present themselves differently for each individual, but some of the patterns may remain the same. While it may be hard to recognize subtle symptoms in yourself, having a good support system of close friends or family can be beneficial following a traumatic event so that they can help you know what to look for and when to seek help. Treating symptoms at an early occurrence will make it much easier to diagnose and overcome PTSD before it persists and worsens into a chronic condition that is much tougher to recover from. It also can help prevent behaviors from becoming self-destructive or hurting others.