Much of our stress comes from those daily, irritating hassles, like losing keys, getting stuck in traffic, rushing to get to appointments and so on. Every so often a more significant event occurs, such as the death of a loved one. Stress can be acute (it comes then goes) or chronic (living in poverty, or nursing a sick relative for years). Accordingly, our response to stress tends to vary according to the perceived level of severity. Certainly most people will be very familiar with the dry mouth, the clammy hands, the racing heart and weak legs that come with stressful situations. However, once the stressful situation passes we quickly recover, we learn something from the experience, and we often use this knowledge as a coping strategy next time around.
Traumatic events are different. For one thing they tend to be sudden, unexpected and highly threatening. The reactions people have to such situations are more complex and often beyond the simple fight-or-flight model we associate with stress. It's true that once a traumatic event takes place the body responds in the way it has evolved over the years. Some situations however are impossible to escape from and it can actually be safer for the person to freeze in order to survive. Freezing may certainly help to prevent drawing the attention of an attacker, but sometimes freezing occurs as a way for the mind to dissociate itself from its surroundings. If this happens a sense of unreality and detachment takes over in order to cope with both the fear and pain of what is happening.
In the hours, days and weeks that follow a traumatic event the process of recovery (or chronicity) begins. Some people continue with their emotional shut-down and some remain emotionally numb. Most will find themselves experiencing vivid memories and images of the trauma. These are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The course of recovery has been examined in a variety of studies following trauma such as rape, physical assault, motor accidents and combat. The measures used in such studies tend to vary a little but certain trends have emerged to give us an idea about recovery. For example, in studies of rape victims it appears the greatest problems arise within the first three months of the assault. In one study, just below 50 per cent of rape victims were diagnosed with PTSD. Only a few studies have investigated reactions to stress following motor accidents. Typically, early symptoms of PTSD last a few months and then give way to a gradual recovery over the period of around a year.
There are certainly no hard and fast rules about recovery following a traumatic event. The most general trends suggest that most people recover sufficiently within a few months. However, the nature, duration and prevalence of trauma have a huge bearing on whether or how a person might recover over the longer term.
Published On: July 07, 2010