Recovering from traumatic experiences – anxiety, stress and PTSD

Most people recovering from traumatic experiences may have suffered from the lingering symptoms of anxiety, panic and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) long after the distressing events have occurred. These symptoms can range from recurring flashbacks and dreams, fearfulness, anger, hyperarousal and increased vigilance or startle responses.

Any harmful or life-threatening events or distressing interactions with other human beings may trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response in an effort to avoid or fight off the anticipated danger.

The fight and flight response is activated by your amygdala (the brain’s alarm system) and then via the brain stem into your sympathetic nervous system to prime the body’s natural response to danger. This includes a rush of adrenaline, increased blood flow and breathing rate, dilated pupils and tension in the muscles primed for fight and flight. In most cases, your nervous system normally recovers after a few days or weeks, but when the body’s natural stressors like cortisol remain undischarged then you can become stuck in a constant cycle of helplessness, vulnerability and painful memories or sensations you cannot seem to shrug off.

Usually, however, it is the freeze response which has the greatest potential to cause psychological damage through dissociation during the traumatic episode. This is when the person is so overwhelmed by events that the body remains frozen, while the brain shuts down and goes into an almost trance-like daze, so as to switch off from the threatening experiences of trauma. As the person is recovering from trauma, the brain seems not to have processed the heightened emotions, sensations or terror associated with those traumatic experiences. They feel helpless and unable to make sense of their experiences.

As distressing as the trauma is though, it’s important to remain aware that you’re not helpless. There are plenty of things you can do to alleviate your anxious symptoms, reduce fear, and take charge of your life again.

What is trauma?

Trauma is caused by a series of distressing events or developmental experiences in childhood which threaten to overwhelm the person’s ability to cope and undermine their sense of safety and/or emotional resilience. Most people associate trauma with natural disasters, road accidents, rape and war, but any event (or series of events) that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can trigger the stressful symptoms associated with trauma.

Trauma can affect people in different ways and everyone has varying degrees of tolerance or emotional resilience for stress. When understanding trauma, it is often not helpful to measure or compare the levels of stress expected from the events themselves, but better to understand the that those events may be outside the person’s own range of ‘normal’ experience and tolerance.

Traumatic events may include being a victim of or witness to: abuse, domestic violence, assault, rape, road accidents, war or natural disasters.

What are the symptoms of trauma?

Trauma can affect people differently because every person’s autonomic nervous system and tolerance for stress varies. While the symptoms of psychological trauma may take days or weeks, it can sometimes develop years later. There are the archetypal symptoms of trauma:

  • Increased levels of anxiety, distress and emotional arousal – including increased sensitivity to risk, a heightened startle response, trouble sleeping, irritability, outbursts of anger and violence, difficulty concentrating, and constant sense of being on alert or ‘stepping on eggshells’.
  • Re-experiencing of the traumatic event – including flashbacks, distressing memories and nightmares, as well as feelings of distress or intense physical arousal when reminded of the traumatic event and symbolic associations (such as shortness of breath, pounding heart, perspiration and dry mouth).
  • Avoidance behaviors when anticipating reminders of the trauma - including avoiding activities, places or thoughts associated with the trauma or lacking narrative memories of important aspects of the traumatic event. People can feel detached and isolated from loved ones, emotionally numb, or an absence of interest in life or hopelessness.
  • Other symptoms – including feelings of shame or guilt about being unable to cope, increased alcohol or drug dependency and feeling unable to remain safe or trust loved ones.When a person’s sense of safety has been shattered by trauma, it’s common to remain fearful and unable to stop reimagining what happened. For most people, these symptoms gradually desist, but when the symptoms recur your brain and nervous system gets "stuck." 
  • Increased hypervigilance – occurs when you remain primed with anticipation, triggered by a need to defend yourself or escape reminders of trauma. The heart pounds faster, blood pressure rises, and muscles tighten, increasing your reflex reactions. Even once the danger has passed, the stress hormone, cortisol may remain in your system, keeping your reflexes on a hair-trigger.
  • Increased hypovigilance – occurs when you are overwhelmed by stress during trauma, and drift into a dissociative state as you freeze. When the immediate danger has passed, you find yourself ‘stuck’, as the nervous system is unable to recover or return to its normal state of homeostasis and balance.

This is why it is vital to counteract the effects and symptoms of trauma by self-regulating your emotional states, keeping moving, discharging stress hormones, exercising, mindful breathing and reconnecting with other people. This can help reestablish confidence, a sense of empowerment and trust in loved ones, rather than recycle the obliterating effects of trauma before they become embedded in the brain, body and nervous system.

Increased movement and exercise

Try using rhythmic, fluid and aerobic exercise that engages your sensory-motor system, including walking, running, yoga, swimming or dancing – focusing on your sensations rather you’re your thoughts, focusing on how your body feels. Noticing and building an awareness of your sensations in the present moment, using grounding techniques, paying attention to the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling the elements. Also, activities such as martial arts, tai chi and boxing can make it easier to focus on your body movements and feeling empowered. Aim to exercise daily.

Self-regulating sensations and emotions

Mindfulness of breathing is an effective way to deactivate the fight and flight response when you’re triggered, as well as calming yourself. Simply take time out for deep, diaphragmatic breathing, by focusing your attention on the sensations and sound of each breath. You may meditate and focus on your bodily sensations - sights, noises, or smells which can provide positive and pleasurable sensory input by calming you down. For example, you may focus on the sounds of water, wind and birds in a park or natural surroundings. Reconnect emotionally with pleasurable activities and creativity that help you to manage stress, balance your moods and offer and sense of hope and inspiration outside of work and family life.

Reconnecting with other people and loved ones

You need to slowly reestablish trust in a support network of friends and loved ones. Practice being with them in calm easy-going scenarios which don not require feeling pressurized in social situations. Join clubs or society’s where you can enjoy creativity or working on small-scale projects. You can also try volunteering which helps develop compassion and empathy with yourself and others, as well as reclaiming your sense of empowerment. Even joining support group can help you feel less isolated and offer you new ways of working towards recovery,

Look after your well-being

Take some time to recover. Be patient, compassionate and relax. Use some relaxation techniques such as meditation, mindful breathing, massage, or yoga can activate the body’s relaxation response and discharge stress hormones. Go about your day by attending to your basic physiological needs by eating a healthy diet, having enough sleep, taking regular toilet breaks, breaks from work and socialise with friends. Reduce your intake of sugary, starchy and fatty foods which can provoke mood swings and fluctuations in energy. Avoid relying on alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine and drugs to self-medicate, as these get you caught-up in cycles of dependency, as well as the spikes of highs and lows. Ensure you have enough sleep, as sleep deprivation can only aggravate anger, irritability and mood-swings, as well as reduce recovery rates. Develop sound routines and slow down with relaxation techniques before sleeping.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & TW1
Written by Gregori Savva, Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree
Twickenham TW2 & TW1

I am Greg Savva. An experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I believe in a compassionate, open-minded approach to counselling as the best way forward for my clients. I focus on helping you make sense of erratic thoughts and emotions. Offering you a chance to gain self-awareness and change for the better.

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