The sorts of symptoms that people experience may include:

  • being on edge – on the lookout for danger, worrying that something is going to happen 

  • being jumpy – easily startled by loud noises, sudden movements, etc 

  • difficulty sleeping – difficulty in getting off to sleep, waking up during the night, having vivid dreams or nightmares

  • intrusive memories – thoughts or images of the traumatic event ‘come out of the blue’, or are triggered by sounds, smells, or sights that somehow bring it all back

  • feeling as if it were happening again – this may feel as if the traumatic events are recurring all over again

  • feeling overwhelmed - by intense feelings and bodily sensations that you feel you cannot handle

  • guilt and shame – feelings about letting yourself or others down, about being in some way responsible, or because you survived when others didn’t

  • anxiety – feelings of fearfulness, nervousness and sometimes panic

  • sadness – feelings of low mood and tearfulness

  • anger – at the injustice or the person who is responsible 

  • emotional numbness – feeling detached and unable to have feelings

  • withdrawal – retreating into yourself, avoiding company

  • disappointment – thinking that other people (including family) do not understand

  • mental avoidance – of thoughts and memories associated with the event

  • behavioural avoidance – of activities, places, people and situations which remind you of the incident

  • physical reactions – such as feeling shaky, trembling, muscular aches, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, being forgetful, palpitations, shallow rapid breathing, dizziness, stomach upset, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, disturbance of menstrual cycle or loss of interest in sex

  • impact on relationships – the experience of trauma and bereavement can however sometimes place strains on relationships. You may feel that too little, or the wrong sort of help and support is offered, or that others do not appreciate what you have been through and expect too much of you

  • drink and drugs – sometimes, there is a tendency for people to rely on drink or drugs as a means of coping

  • loss of confidence and self esteem – feeling that nothing you do is good enough

  • feelings of irritability, frustration, and anger – if things do not work out as you want

Understanding post-traumatic stress

It is important to emphasise that there are no right or wrong ways to react after a traumatic experience. Everyone’s reactions will be individual and not everybody will experience all of the feelings described above, nor experience them to the same degree.

Individual reactions will vary from those of other people for a number of reasons, including: 

  • differences in personality

  • differences in ways of expressing emotion

  • differences in styles of coping 

People also vary in terms of: 

  • their previous experiences of trauma

  • the extent to which there are other stresses and strains in their life

  • the amount of support and help they have

  • their capacity to understand and process their reactions/responses to trauma 

While most people involved in a traumatic incident will be shaken by what has happened, and may experience some of the problems listed above, most people adjust well to their experiences and recover within the first three months to a level where they are able to get on with their lives as they did before. This is not to say that people forget what has happened. It is possible to come to terms with past events, put them in perspective, and carry on with your life.

But not everyone does reach a state of recovery. Sometimes the problems listed above are still causing difficulties many weeks, months or years later and interfering with life so much that professional help is required.  

If after several weeks or months you are still experiencing many of the problems listed above, and they are interfering with your life so that you are struggling to manage at home and work, it is likely that you are experiencing what counsellors refer to as post-traumatic stress. Sometimes just knowing this and that there is a name for what you are experiencing can be helpful. 

One of the things that many counsellors will do is to try to help you make sense of your experiences. They may say something like the following: 

“When someone is exposed to a traumatic event there is so much going on, so much to take in, that it’s like we hurriedly pack an imaginary bag with our thoughts and feelings, which we then take away with us from the scene of the trauma. However, this ‘emotional luggage’, because it has been badly packed, may frequently burst open from time to time or when it is ‘knocked against’ something. This is often experienced as distressing thoughts, images and feelings. What we need to do is unpack and repack the bag to help us make sense of what happened. This can be very upsetting to do, and we might not want to do it, but eventually it allows us to re-arrange things so that we can carry the bag without it bursting open unexpectedly.”