PTSD and reactions to trauma

Reviewed by:
April 1, 2020

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 50% of us will experience trauma in our lifetime. We may develop different reactions to trauma including feeling nervous or shaky or having repetitive, racing thoughts. But Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when the brain cannot effectively manage our anxious thoughts and feelings of fear after a traumatic event. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 7-8% of all people will experience PTSD in their lifetime. However, trauma can affect your life and functioning even if you don’t suffer from PTSD. Let’s examine what trauma is, how trauma may impact your life, and the treatments available for PTSD. 

What is trauma?

We’ve all been through stressful life events, but what is trauma exactly? A traumatic event used to be defined as an experience in which the person perceived their life as being threatened, feared serious physical injury, or sexual violence. But this definition has shifted over the years. The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) decided to expand upon the definition of trauma. It now includes all of the above, in addition to witnessing any of the aforementioned things happening to another person. It also includes suddenly discovering that any of these things happened to a loved one. 

A few examples of trauma may more readily come to mind, including suffering physical abuse, rape, or having a near-death experience during the war. Less obvious examples of this could include repeated emotional abuse over time, the sudden death of a close family member, or living through a natural disaster. Any of these events could lead to the development of PTSD characteristics that may be noticed after a trauma, even if they don’t meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD.

Reactions to trauma

There are many features that make up a diagnosis of PTSD. The clinical terms for these features are hypervigilance, avoidance, and re-experiencing. Additionally, we typically see mood and thought changes that happen in PTSD as well.

Hypervigilance is a heightened sense of fear and increased reactivity.

Avoidance applies to staying away from particular activities or places related to the trauma due to fear.

Re-experiencing can mean reliving the traumatic event in a variety of ways. This can sometimes occur in vivid nightmares, or flashbacks while you’re awake.

Even though having all of these symptoms could mean that you’re suffering from PTSD, having just one or a couple of these symptoms could still be reactions to trauma that feel unmanageable.

Read our blog “What is PTSD and How Does Talkiatry Treat it?” for a more detailed list of the symptoms, behaviors, and conditions as listed and defined in the DSM-5.

What reactions to trauma look like

There may be small things that you notice. Maybe you got into a car accident at a particular intersection. Subsequently, this was so distressing for you that you now avoid that particular intersection at all costs. Or maybe you have stressful and vivid dreams about the car accident, even if some details about it are different. Another more mild example is that some people experience mood changes related to the weather time of year when their event occurred. Or a more severe example, continuing to use the car accident example, the sound of screeching tires causes your heart to race and your breathing to quicken because you feel that you’re reliving your car accident.  

Experiencing any of these types of reactions to trauma can cause people to feel isolated and very alone. It may even seem like these reactions to trauma are frustrating and inconvenient in some ways. But really they’re just your body telling you, “No! Don’t do that. It’s not safe. We don’t want to go through that again”. When your system pipes up and tries to tell you something, don’t ignore it. Especially, if any of these symptoms are getting in the way of you living your life, it may be time to get help. 

Treatment options for PTSD

The best treatment for traumatic psychological wounds is a combination of medication management and trauma-focused psychotherapy, including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Learn more about how Talkiatry treats PTSD.

If you are having a reaction to trauma that is becoming unmanageable for you, we’re here to help. At Talkiatry, we have psychiatrists and nurse practitioners trained in a variety of modalities to meet your needs. Start by taking our assessment to receive a preliminary diagnosis, then we’ll match you with our psychiatrists who specialize in treating PTSD so you can get the tailored treatment you need for your diagnosis.

About Talkiatry

Talkiatry is a local, accessible and complete mental healthcare solution that accepts insurance. We close the gap for individuals who want to get better but feel that mental health care has been challenging to navigate up until this point and want a more convenient way to take the first step. Talkiatry takes the traditional local mental health visit and combines it with technology, scale, efficiency, and design to provide the best possible environment for healing.

Talkiatry is a mental health practice, and our clinicians review everything we write. However, articles are never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may need mental health help, talk to a psychiatrist. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

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