Trauma & mental health
Impact of trauma
In the first days and weeks following a traumatic event, many people experience strong feelings such as fear, sadness, guilt and anger. Most people recover on their own and get back to their normal lives with the support of family and friends, and without professional assistance.
Talk to your doctor at any time if you feel very distressed or your reactions are interfering with your work and relationships.
However, people who do not recover on their own may need professional help. Their problems may include:
- posttraumatic stress disorder
- risky alcohol and drug use
- together with difficulties with relationships, work and daily life.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
A person with PTSD has four main types of problems:
- Re-living the traumatic event – through unwanted memories, vivid nightmares, flashbacks, or intense reactions such as heart palpitations or panic when reminded of the event.
- Feeling wound up – having trouble sleeping or concentrating, feeling angry or irritable, taking risks, being easily startled, or constantly being on the look-out for danger.
- Avoiding reminders of the event – activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings that bring back memories of the trauma.
- Negative thoughts and feelings – feeling afraid, angry, guilty, flat, or numb a lot of the time, losing interest in day-to-day activities, feeling cut-off from friends and family.
It is not unusual for people with PTSD to experience other mental health problems like depression or anxiety. Some people may develop a habit of using alcohol or drugs as a way of coping.
PTSD in children
Older children and adolescents experience similar problems to adults when they develop PTSD. Younger children may express distress in a different way. For example, they may re-live the traumatic event through repetitive play rather than having unwanted memories of the event during the day. Many children will have frightening dreams without recognisable content rather than nightmares that replay the traumatic event. Children may also lose interest in play, become socially withdrawn, or have extreme temper tantrums.
About one third of children who experience a traumatic event will develop PTSD.
Other problems that can develop alongside PTSD include anxiety or depression, defiant behaviour, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and in adolescents, suicidal thoughts and alcohol or drug use.
“..with my legs like this, I won’t be able to do all the stuff I did with my mates…I used to be pretty good at footy, but now, I don’t know…I feel like I don’t have a life anymore, like there is no light at the end of the tunnel ...I just can’t get motivated”
Sadness and grief are normal after a traumatic experience. People can also develop negative thoughts about themselves, the world and other people. These thoughts and feelings usually lift as people start to adjust to the traumatic event. However, for some, these thoughts and feelings persist and they find it hard to participate in everyday activities. These people may have developed depression and would benefit from talking to a health practitioner.
Depression is a common mental health problem with one in five Australians experiencing it at least once in their lives. And it is common after trauma. Some of the signs are:
- little or no interest or pleasure in normal activities
- being tearful
- feeling low and miserable
- feeling tired all the time
- changes in appetite, sleep or weight
- feeling worthless, helpless and hopeless
- poor concentration
- suicidal thoughts
Depression can get in the way of coping with everyday life: getting out of bed, going to work, seeing friends. These everyday activities may become very difficult. Depression can also make it difficult for people to work through their traumatic experience.
If you have been experiencing a number of these problems for more than two weeks, then you should talk to your local doctor or a mental health professional. Click here for more information.
Many people experience fear and anxiety during and after a traumatic event. They may feel terrified, stressed or on edge. Some people may also feel disoriented or as if things are unreal. If these feelings persist or the level of anxiety becomes so severe that it significantly interferes with the ability to cope with daily life, the person may have an anxiety disorder.
One in 10 Australians experiences an anxiety disorder at any one time. Common anxiety disorders that follow trauma are posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalised anxiety disorder, and panic disorder.
People with anxiety may experience:
- racing heart
- shaking, trembling or dizziness
- feeling restless or on edge
If you have been experiencing a number of these problems for more than a few days, you should talk to your local doctor or a mental health professional. Click here for more information.
Risky alcohol and drug use
People commonly use alcohol or drugs to blunt the emotional distress that they are experiencing. Alcohol and drugs may help block out painful memories in the short term, but they get in the way of recovery.
For more information about where to get help with high-risk drinking or drug use, please see our list of organisations and websites.
Difficulties with relationships, work and daily life
Mental health problems resulting from a traumatic event can have a significant impact on family, social and work life. A person’s distress can make it difficult for them to relate to others. This may take different forms, including withdrawal from family and social activities, overprotectiveness, or difficulty expressing emotions. People can also feel irritable and lash out at family and friends. While anger is a common response to a traumatic situation, if it persists, it may have serious and negative consequences for relationships and family.
Returning to work can be difficult following a traumatic event, but returning to your normal routine helps recovery. Health practitioners can provide information on where to get practical support and rehabilitation if needed. This can be important even when the problem seems mild. It is often easier to prevent a problem getting worse than trying to manage it when it is having a significant impact on your life.