It is not uncommon for people to have an experience where they are left feeling distressed. Oftentimes, the event can be so traumatizing that it causes us to feel stressed for days, weeks, months — and sometimes even years — after it took place.
Traumatic stress can manifest in a few ways emotionally, physically and mentally. Accordingly, it’s important to know what it can look like in these three different forms.
If you have experienced a traumatic event, and are grappling with traumatic stress, your emotions may become extremely intensified. This could include: having frequent anger outbursts, the onset of panic attacks or even feelings of great sadness and loss.
Another way traumatic stress manifests emotionally is when people disconnect from their emotions entirely and feel numb to new events or stimuli. This is a protective response to prevent their nervous system from getting overloaded.
Due to heightened emotions, one may experience physical symptoms of traumatic stress. This can appear in a variety of ways throughout the body. Some people may experience shallow or rapid breathing, chest pain or headaches. Others report having tense muscles or feeling tense throughout the body or find themselves restless and having difficulty relaxing and sitting still.
While some people feel physical tension or pain throughout the body, this is not the case for everyone. Some may find themselves on the opposite of the spectrum; oftentimes, people find themselves feeling completely physically disconnected.
It's not uncommon for someone experiencing traumatic stress to zone out and feel as though they are not connected to their physical body or the world around them. This can also be accompanied by a dulling of the five senses (smell, touch, taste, hearing and sight). Some individuals feel as if their bodies are weightless — or they experience lightheadedness and dizziness.
Traumatic stress also impacts how we feel cognitively. When experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress mentally, one may have racing thoughts focused on the present (and how to navigate the traumatic situation), the future (due to their vision of now being doubted) or towards whatever is causing them traumatic stress.
Alternatively, one may have brain fog and not be able to access words or thoughts. This may look like an individual being very confused or experiencing some memory loss. Some people have difficulty describing or recognizing their emotions. This is the brain’s way of trying to protect the body. It will try to shut down any “unnecessary” activity in order to focus on scanning for danger and safety.
How to Manage Traumatic Stress
When experiencing traumatic stress, it is important to relax and ground your mind and body to make yourself feel safe. Utilizing grounding or mindfulness techniques or interventions help regulate the body and send messages to the brain saying, “I am safe.” Practicing these interventions allow the brain and body to focus on the present moment instead of the past traumatic experience that is causing us stress. NAMI offers several strategies to help individuals cope with traumatic stress. Some effective methods include:
5 - Look: Look around for five things you can see and say them out loud.
4 - Feel: Pay attention to your body, think of four things you can feel and say them out loud.
3 - Listen: Listen for three things you can hear (traffic, birds chirping, etc.) and say them out loud.
2 - Smell: Say two things you can smell. If you can't smell anything at the moment, name your two favorite smells out loud.
1 - Taste: Say one thing you taste. If you can't taste anything, name your favorite thing to taste.
4-2-6 Breathing Exercise
Breathe in through your nose to a count of four. Hold it for two. Breathe out slowly through your mouth for a count of six. By doing this you are activating the part of your nervous system that helps your body calm itself.
Ultimately, traumatic stress can have a lasting impact on us. It can affect our brains, bodies and how we respond to stressors after a traumatic event — on an emotional, physical and mental level. These manifestations of traumatic stress can range from mild to severe, but regardless of intensity, symptoms can be managed. If you are struggling, try utilizing grounding techniques and mindfulness activities to cope and move forward.
Brent Metcalf is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing at Tri-Star Counseling, LLC in Johnson City, Tenn. He has provided services to individuals, couples, groups and families. Brent specializes in trauma treatment, addictions and brainspotting therapy.