After a distressing or traumatic experience, it’s normal to go over and over what happened, even to have troubling dreams about it. This usually settles down within a week or two. But if it keeps going and causes distress, you might have a problem with posttraumatic stress.
What are traumatic events?
Most people who have experienced a traumatic event will be emotionally affected in some way.
An experience can be traumatic when your life or safety is directly threatened, or when you see someone else being threatened, injured or killed. Any event that involves experiencing or witnessing actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence has the potential to be traumatic.
See also: What are traumatic events?
Almost everyone who experiences trauma will be emotionally affected, and there are many different ways in which people will respond. Even if you've been trained for these situations, you can still be affected by post-traumatic stress.
In the first few weeks after the event, you may experience strong feelings of fear, guilt or anger. You may feel jumpy or have trouble sleeping.
People usually recover on their own and get back to their normal lives with the support of family and friends. In some cases, though, professional help might be needed to recover fully.
Do I have a problem with post-traumatic stress?
There’s no firm rule about how long it should take to get over a traumatic experience, or even how it may affect you.
Recovery time varies from person to person. As a general guide, if you’re still struggling after a couple of weeks, you might need help.
You may benefit from self-help techniques or professional support if you are:
- depressed or anxious
- experiencing and finding it difficult to cope with grief or loss
- worried about how much you’re drinking, or
- using other drugs.
Why are these memories still haunting me?
After a trauma, your mind automatically tries to ‘process’ what has happened. This usually means thinking a lot about the traumatic event. As you come to terms with what happened, the memory fades.
However, if the trauma is too stressful, you may try to avoid thinking about it and anything that reminds you of it.
The problem with avoidance is that it interferes with your ability to deal with what happened. So no matter how hard you try to avoid traumatic thoughts, they can come back through nightmares, intrusive thoughts or images.
What can I do about it?
If you’ve been through a traumatic event and are struggling with unwanted thoughts or memories, there are a few things you can do on your own to start your recovery. For some people, these strategies might be all that is needed. For others, they can be a useful addition to professional help.
Tell your story
You might not feel like it, but talking about your experience with someone you trust, or even just writing it down, can help you come to terms with trauma.
At first, you may find it challenging or even awkward, but it will get easier.
Talking about your experience can also help you see it from a different perspective. Even if you don’t remember all the details, talk about the parts you do remember.
If you don't remember everything, talk about what you imagine happened in the parts you can’t remember (or what other people have told you). You should also think about how you feel about not being able to remember some details.
If you find talking about your experience extremely upsetting, or it’s been a long time since the event happened, it’s probably best to get professional help.
Learning more about posttraumatic stress (PTSD) and its treatment can make recovery easier because you'll understand what you might be going through.
Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling can also help. Free and confidential support is available to veterans and their families. Call 1800 011 046 to find out how Open Arms can help you.
Relax your body and slow your breathing
Feeling constantly ‘on edge’ leads to muscle tension, fatigue, aches and pains.
To keep your anxiety under control, make anxiety management strategies like breathing exercises or relaxation part of your daily routine.
These tools will help you to feel calmer and release tension from your body.
- The Progressive Muscle Relaxation tool will teach you how to tense and relax different muscle groups in your body.
- The Controlled Breathing tool teaches you how to slow your breathing rate.
When you’re starting out, practice these techniques when you're feeling calm. When you’ve learned the skills you’ll be able to quickly use them whenever you start to feel anxious.
Because being reminded of the traumatic event can make you feel anxious or upset, it often seems easier to avoid situations where you might be reminded of what happened.
You might start making up excuses not to see your mates from the military, for example, because of bad memories.
At first, this might seem like a good idea. But avoiding reminders of your traumatic experience can make your distress worse. That’s because you don’t get the chance to manage the feelings that come with reminders, and realise that, even though the feelings are unpleasant, you can handle them.
Look after yourself
A healthy lifestyle can reduce your anxiety levels.
Try to eat well, get enough rest, exercise regularly, avoid drinking too much or taking drugs.
The Right Mix website and app can help you maintain a healthy balance between alcohol consumption, diet and exercise.
Manage your drinking
Although drinking can make you feel better in the short term, in the long run it will make you more anxious. This makes it more difficult to deal with difficult memories.
If you're going to reduce how much you drink, you'll need a plan.
Write down the motivations, goals, strategies and supports that will help you manage your drinking.
You can also use the ON TRACK with The Right Mix app.
Improve your sleep
Troubling memories can disrupt your sleep, but there are some simple changes that you can improve the quality of your sleep.
Use the Healthy Sleeping tool and answer the questions about your typical sleeping behaviours to get tailored advice and tips to improve your sleep, and optimise mental and physical functioning.
This tool is also available on the High Res app to use on the go.
If you are troubled by painful memories, physical activity can help reduce stress and anxiety.
Use the Physical Activities tool to find activities that you would like to do. Then you can set physical activity goals.
This tool is also available on the High Res app to use on the go.
Self-help isn't right for everyone. If you've tried the strategies above and things still aren't improving, or if you are having trouble coping day-to-day, call us.
Free and confidential support is available to veterans and their families. Call 1800 011 046 to find out how Open Arms can help you
Open Arms counsellors have experience working with the veteran community and can help you understand and overcome whatever you're going through. Free and confidential support is available for veterans and their families.
Open Arms can provide individual, couple and family counselling to help improve your resilience, as well as enhance your mental health and wellbeing. Call 1800-011-046 for free and confidential 24/7 support.
If you are looking for counselling or support services, call us any time on 1800-011-046.
A program to help understand and manage the impact of trauma on you and your family.