When we think of stress, we generally associate it with the potential wear and tear on the mind and body as we adjust to daily changes and challenges in our lives. Yet there are both negative and positive attributes to stress. On the negative side, stress can compromise the ability to think clearly, cause one to feel anxious, disrupt the ability to sleep and, ultimately, lead to physical illness. On the positive side, stress can be a powerful force that enables one to get things done and be more productive. Some people describe how they work better under stress—when they’re feeling pressured.
Some events in our lives can be so overwhelming that we perceive a serious threat to our physical well-being, or the well-being of others. We may experience intense feelings of fear, helplessness and horror. We may feel overwhelmed, unsafe, insecure and vulnerable. This is traumatic stress—our feelings, thoughts, actions, and physical and spiritual reactions when we’re exposed to, or even witness, events that overwhelm our ability to cope.
People experience traumatic stress when they’re exposed to a disaster or catastrophe—a plane crash, terrorist attack, military combat, or an earthquake. Yet it doesn’t have to be a highly publicized event with a two-inch newspaper headline. People also experience traumatic stress during the personal disasters that color their lives: facing a serious illness or injury, dealing with the tragic loss of a loved one, being physically or sexually violated, experiencing an accident, or living through a divorce.
Like stress, traumatic stress can also have a positive side. It can be the force that propels people to cultivate a mission and, ultimately, live with a new sense of purpose. By understanding what traumatic stress is, and by knowing that it’s a normal response to an abnormal event, you’ll be empowered and in a better position to survive and thrive.
We must not confuse traumatic stress with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD, along with other psychiatric diagnoses, may apply to people who continue to experience ongoing debilitating symptoms after exposure to a traumatic event. Let me explain just a bit.
During a crisis, your brain is bathed with chemicals that are primarily designed to keep you alive. However, these chemicals can “work overtime” causing you to feel anxious, excessively watchful, panicky, angry and depressed. They can certainly compromise your ability to function into the future.
I believe that we’re too quick to label people in an effort to regain a sense of control that adversity seems to have taken away. Unfortunately, these labels can be very destructive, in and of themselves. They can lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” If you hear it, you begin to associate everything you do as “due to my PTSD, my disorder.”
We can’t avoid experiencing losses, illness and other tragedies during our lifetimes. They’re part of the human experience. And we certainly can’t inoculate ourselves from experiencing traumatic stress. Again, it’s a normal response to an abnormal event. However, by having an understanding of what’s happening to us, while it’s happening, and by knowing that our reactions are normal, we can become empowered to work toward regaining a sense of control of our lives.
We can potentially prevent acute stress reactions from becoming chronic and debilitating stress disorders.