Long-Term Effects of Trauma

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop when someone has faced a dangerous event causing intense fear or helplessness (e.g., disaster, assault). Such events may shake our emotional foundations and cause us to doubt basic beliefs about safety and security. Individuals who are most at risk for PTSD are those who experienced the traumatic event directly, faced an especially intense or prolonged traumatic situation, have limited social support, or had prior emotional difficulties.

The symptoms of PTSD fall into three groups:

  1. Reliving the event. This can take the form of dreams, flashbacks, intrusive memories, or strong reactions to reminders of the trauma (e.g., an airplane crash survivor panicking at the sound of an airplane). Children may repeatedly act out the upsetting events through play.
  2. “Numbing” and avoidance of cues resembling the event. For example, individuals may avoid discussing the event, thinking about the event, or watching TV programs that remind them of the event; they may lose interest in their usual activities, feel distant or isolated, or have difficulty recalling the trauma. Close relationships are frequently impaired.
  3. Hyperarousal. This category includes difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, tendency to startle easily, and irritability. People often feel as though they are “on alert” 24 hours a day.

It is very common to experience some of these reactions following a traumatic event, and the reactions often fade with the passage of time. However, if these symptoms interfere with daily functioning and last longer than a month, a person may be experiencing PTSD. Occasionally, PTSD develops months or years after the traumatic event is over.

Individuals suffering from PTSD may find it helpful to talk with a counselor who has expertise in trauma. Brief therapy is often very effective, especially when the trauma is relatively recent. Medication may also help with symptoms such as anxiety and insomnia.