Common Symptoms After a Traumatic Event

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Many people will experience some kind of traumatic event — from the unexpected death of a loved one to a motor vehicle accident — at some point in their lifetime.

However, not all people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic event.

Although someone might not develop PTSD, they may experience PTSD-like symptoms immediately after a traumatic event. Many of these symptoms are actually common reactions to a traumatic event.

What Are Normal Symptoms?

So, what is a "normal" symptom and what is an "abnormal" symptom? This is difficult to answer as everyone's response to a traumatic event is different. However, there are some common symptoms that may be expected to occur after a traumatic event.

Common reactions to a traumatic event are described below.

  • Intrusive thoughts and memories. After a traumatic event, it is common to experience some intrusive thoughts and memories of the traumatic event. This is especially likely to occur when you encounter something (for example, a person, place or image) that reminds you of the traumatic event.
  • Hypervigilance. It is also very natural to feel more on-guard and aware of your surroundings after a traumatic event. This is actually a very protective symptom following a traumatic event. Your body is attempting to keep you safe by making you more aware of potential sources of threat and danger. This natural safety mechanism is going to be more sensitive after a traumatic event is experienced.
  • Hyperarousal. Just as you are going to likely be more on-guard, you are also likely going to feel more keyed-up and on edge following a traumatic event. This is again part of your body's natural protection system. Fear and anxiety tell us that there is some kind of danger present, and all the bodily sensations that go along with fear and anxiety are essentially designed to help us respond to that danger. They are preparing us to flee, freeze or to fight. Following a traumatic event, your body's alarm system is going to be more sensitive in an attempt to protect you from future traumatic events.
  • Feeling Unsafe. After a traumatic event, our assumptions about the world being a safe and secure place are understandably shattered. Consequently, people may feel as though any situation or place is potentially dangerous. Places or situations you once felt secure in may now feel threatening and be anxiety-provoking. This is especially likely to occur in situations or places that remind you of your traumatic event.

As you read through some symptoms that commonly occur following a traumatic event, you will notice that most are symptoms of PTSD. It is important to remember that just because you have these symptoms does not mean you have PTSD.

First, although the symptoms below can be distressing, they are often much less severe and intense than the symptoms found in PTSD.

In addition, PTSD cannot be diagnosed until at least 30 days following a traumatic event. This is because many PTSD-like symptoms are actually part of your body's natural response to a traumatic event, and for many people, these symptoms will gradually reduce over time.

Symptoms to Keep an Eye out For

The symptoms presented below can be a sign that you may be at risk for developing PTSD. They may cause the symptoms listed above to become worse, eventually leading to PTSD. Therefore, it is very important to be aware of the following symptoms.

  • Loss of interest. It is important to keep an eye out for a loss of interest in activities that you used to once enjoy, as well as feelings of being detached from others. This symptom can be a sign that you are ​at risk of becoming depressed. This symptom may also cause you to isolate yourself from others, including important sources of social support.
  • Avoidance. After a traumatic event, it is very common to avoid certain situations, activities or people. However, you must pay attention to avoidance behaviors. Avoidance usually leads to more avoidance as it reinforces our belief that the world is not a safe place after a traumatic event. This avoidance can then lead to a worsening of symptoms and eventually PTSD.
  • Unhealthy coping behaviors. Just as avoidance of activities, situations or people can be problematic, so can the avoidance of thoughts and feelings. The symptoms people experience after a traumatic event can be very distressing. As a result, people may rely on unhealthy coping strategies (for example, using substances) as a way of avoiding these symptoms. Avoidance is only a short-term solution, and in the long-run, it can actually cause your feelings and thoughts to become more intense.

What You Can Do Following a Traumatic Event

After a traumatic event, it is very important to put into place healthy coping strategies, such as using social support, and minimizing unhealthy coping strategies, such as avoidance through alcohol or drugs.

Validate your feelings. You don't have to force yourself to talk to others about how you feel; however, it is important you don't try to push away your feelings.

It may also be helpful to establish a regular routine or schedule. Traumatic events can greatly disrupt a person's life. They may make a person feel that their life is out-of-control and unpredictable. A regular set schedule can help bring some order and predictability to your life. Although this won't take away anxiety related to a traumatic event, it may help with other sources of anxiety in your life. In setting a schedule, it is important that you put aside time focused on self-care activities. Don't use your schedule as a way to simply keep busy (for example, throwing yourself into your work) so you don't have time to think about the traumatic event.

Finally, it may be helpful to talk with a therapist. Try asking your doctor or a loved one for a recommendation. There are also several websites that provide free searches to help you find appropriate mental health providers in your area available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A therapist can provide support, as well as help you better understand the symptoms you are experiencing.

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Article Sources
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