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Know What “Traumatic Stress” Is and What It’s Not

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:05pm

When we think of stress, we generally associate it

with the potential wear and tear on our mind and

body as we adjust to daily changes and challenges in

our lives. Yet there are both negative and positive

attributes to stress. On the negative side, stress can

compromise our ability to think clearly, cause us to

feel anxious, disrupt our ability to sleep and,

ultimately, lead to physical illness. On the positive

side, stress can be a powerful force that enables us to

get things done and be more productive. Some

people describe how they work better under stress

when they’re feeling pressured.


Some events in our lives can be so overwhelming

that we perceive a serious threat to our physical well-

being, or the well-being of others. We may

experience intense feelings of fear, helplessness and

horror. We may feel overwhelmed, unsafe, insecure

and vulnerable. This is traumatic stress—our feelings,

thoughts, actions, and physical and spiritual

reactions when we’re exposed to, or even witness,

events that overwhelm our ability to cope.


People experience traumatic stress when they’re

exposed to a disaster or catastrophe—a plane crash,

terrorist attack, the battlefield, or an earthquake. Yet

it doesn’t have to be a highly publicized event with a

two-inch newspaper headline. People also experience

traumatic stress during the personal disasters that

color their lives: facing an illness or injury, dealing

with the tragic loss of a loved one, being physically

or sexually violated, experiencing an accident, or

living through a divorce.


Like stress, traumatic stress can also have a positive

side. It can be the force that propels people to

cultivate a mission and purpose and, ultimately,

the ability to live with a new sense of passion. By

understanding what traumatic stress is and by

knowing that it’s a normal response to an abnormal

event you’ll be empowered and in a better position

to survive and thrive.


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