by Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D.
Chairman, The National Center for Emotional Wellness
When we think of stress, we generally associate it with the potential wear and tear on the mind and body as we adjust to daily life changes and challenges.
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 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, military combat, or a flood. 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 a serious 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, ultimately, live with a new sense of purpose. 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.
We must not confuse traumatic stress with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD, along with other psychiatric diagnoses, may apply to people who continue to experience ongoing debilitating symptoms long after exposure to a traumatic event. Let me explain:
During a crisis, your brain is bathed with chemicals to keep you alive. However, these chemicals can “work overtime,” causing you to feel anxious, excessively watchful, panicky, angry, and depressed. They can certainly compromise your ability to function in the future.
I believe that we’re too quick to label people with PTSD to regain a sense of control that adversity seems to have been taken away. Unfortunately, these labels can be very destructive in and of themselves. They can lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy”—If you hear it, you begin to associate everything you do as “due to my PTSD, my disorder.”
We can’t avoid experiencing losses, illness, and other tragedies during our lifetimes. They’re part of the human experience. And we certainly can’t inoculate ourselves from experiencing traumatic stress. Again, it’s a normal response to an abnormal event. However, by understanding what’s happening to us while it’s happening and knowing that our reactions are normal, we can become empowered to work toward regaining a sense of control of our lives.
By reaching people early, during challenges and change, we can potentially prevent the acute stress reactions of today from becoming chronic and debilitating stress and trauma-related disorders of tomorrow. We can foster emotional wellness.