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What Are Trauma Reactions or Signs or Symptoms of PTSD?

The signs and symptoms of PTSD or trauma reactions are related to the person’s experiences in the trauma itself. The cause of trauma is any event where one’s life is threatened (or perceived to threaten a part of self) and one experiences helplessness or powerlessness. Many people don’t realize that even though someone may not immediately have symptoms after an upsetting event, these can come out of nowhere several years later and this can make the symptoms even more upsetting and confusing. The theory behind our trauma reactions is that when people, like we observe animals in nature, are faced with life threatening situations, they first try to fight or flee the situation and if this doesn’t work, we observe them freezing (or playing dead in the hopes that the predator will lose interest and leave them alone). After the freeze response, animals will shake for a short time and return to life as normal. It has also been observed that animals that don’t shake after a trauma, tend to be less resilient and die off quicker in the wild. It is theorized that symptoms of PTSD are due to humans being stuck in this freeze response with their brains and bodies still operating as if it were in the trauma of the past. For example, they may be experiencing symptoms related to the fight/flight response (sympathetic nervous system), the freeze response (parasympathetic nervous system) or be alternating between the two. Also to follow this same theory, to heal from the traumatic event, this energy needs to be discharged (like the animals shake after the event), and in this is article I speak to how this is done in therapy.

The signs and symptoms of a trauma response are vast and may include:

  • nightmares and sleep disturbances
  • intrusive memories
  • full or partial flashbacks (emotional reactions similar to how you felt during trauma versus re-experiencing the whole thing)
  • heightened startle response
  • feelings of disconnection/ alienation from loved ones/community
  • emotional numbing
  • inability to feel happy or other positive emotions
  • feeling on edge or anxious, overly energized
  • panic attacks
  • dissociative reactions (like flashbacks) which may range from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness 
  • intense or prolonged stress when exposed to traumatic reminders
  • avoidance of any external (e.g. people. places) or internal (e.g. thoughts, emotions) reminders related to the trauma
  • unexplained physical pain or health issues that began after the event (IBS, acid reflux, headaches, etc)
  • inability to recall aspects of the event
  • diminished interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • blaming self for what happened
  • persistent negative feelings and beliefs about oneself and the world (“I’m unloveable” “I can trust no one.”)
  • aggressive or irritable behavior
  • problems concentrating
  • feelings of being an outside observer or detached from self (depersonalization), as in a dream
  • feelings of unreality distance or distortion (derealization) (e.g. “Things are not real.”)

For those who wonder if they have clinical PTSD, here is the medical criteria for the diagnosis. However, please see a mental health professional for further support if this is the case.

Many individuals I see in my practice feel overwhelmed with their reactions to trauma and feel like they are “crazy” or damaged, and my first step is to take time to hear them completely, then provide education about the physiology of their specific trauma reactions in order to help them understand that they aren’t crazy. If you’re feeling this way, please know you aren’t alone and you don’t have to relive the past on a daily basis or live numbed out to the joy that life has to offer. Feel free to call me at 720-722-1434 or contact me to see how I can provide further guidance to help reprocess the past to get you out of the stuck or freeze response.

“Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions, intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These post-traumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.” – Bessel A. van der Kolk, "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma"
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