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Post-traumatic stress disorder

How can you deal with the stress of a disaster, or a violent or tragic event?

House destroyed by hurricane.Sometimes we are part of or have lived through a very stressful event such as a hurricane, a serious car accident, or an assault, like date rape. These kinds of scary events can cause a very strong stress reaction in the victims, but the reactions may be different for each person. Some become cranky or depressed. Others can't sleep or have nightmares. Some people may keep reliving the experience, others might experience nervousness and their hearts might race, and some people put the event out of their minds. Feelings that lead to this type of stress include fear, a sense that your life is in danger, helplessness, or horror.

You don’t have to be hurt to experience this type of stress, You can simply be a witness to the event or be threatened with physical harm to have this type of stressful reaction.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is when a person has a lot of anxiety or fear after a scary event. PTSD can happen after all different kinds of events — a mugging, a bad car accident, date rape, abuse, a terrorist attack, or war.

You don't have to be the one who was hurt to experience PTSD. Even watching something scary on television can lead to PTSD. For example, after the events of September 11, 2001, some people developed PTSD symptoms. Usually that's because of the strong feeling of fear, helplessness, or fright that goes with these things.

It's normal to be super-stressed after going through something traumatic. Strong emotions, jitters, and trouble sleeping, eating, or concentrating may all be part of a normal and temporary reaction to an overwhelming event. So might frequent thoughts and images of what happened, nightmares, or fears. Getting the right care and support after a traumatic experience can help these symptoms run their course and subside in a few days or weeks and allow a person to move on.

But PTSD is different. When someone has PTSD, the symptoms of stress are intense and last for longer than a month. For some people, the symptoms of PTSD begin soon after the trauma, but others have a delayed response.

Signs of PTSD include:

  • Bad dreams
  • Flashbacks, or feeling like the scary event is happening again
  • Scary thoughts you can't control
  • Staying away from places and things that remind you of what happened
  • Feeling worried, guilty, or sad
  • Feeling alone
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling on edge
  • Angry outbursts
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or others

PTSD can be treated. A doctor or mental health professional who has experience in treating people with PTSD can help you. Treatment may include "talk" therapy, medication, or both.

Read more about PTSD.

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Whether or not you were directly affected by a traumatic event, it is normal to feel nervous about your own safety and wonder how you would react in an emergency.

Here are some things you can do to handle this special kind of stress:

  • Be honest about your feelings. You may think it feels better to pretend the event did not happen, but it is best to be honest about how you are feeling. Ignoring or hiding your feelings can be worse for your health in the long run. It is okay to feel scared and uncertain.
  • Remember that things will get better. Try to remember that, while you might feel like a changed person and everything seems off balance right now, your life will calm down and you will find a new normal groove.
  • Release your emotions by talking them out. Talk to a teacher, your parents, or a counselor about your sadness, anger, and other emotions. It can be tough to get started, but it is important to confide in someone you trust with your thoughts and feelings.
  • Keep calm by listening to music, praying, or meditating. It is common to want to strike back at people who have caused you or those you love great pain. This feeling is normal, but it is important to understand that it is useless to respond with more violence. Nothing good can come from using hateful words or actions.
  • Look inside yourself to find strength. While you will always remember and feel changed by the event, the feelings will become less painful over time. In learning to cope with tragedy, you will become stronger and better at handling stressful situations. You may also find yourself appreciating life and the people you love even more.
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Content last reviewed May 18, 2010
Page last updated October 31, 2013