Fight or Flight: The Difference Between Stress and PTSD

By MindfulAide

Everyone has felt stressed out at some point in time.

A looming deadline approaches and you don’t feel prepared. You haven’t completed something that you know should be done. There’s something going on at home, or at school, and it puts considerable emotional pressure on you.

10402476_10203664327632198_266548456325420440_n (2)It feels as if there is a weight on your shoulders and chest. You feel bogged down and heavy. It may be hard to concentrate or sleep, you may be tense, or maybe you’re jittery. This is stress. It is a normal human reaction to not feeling like you can cope with a situation or obstacle.

This type of stress can be managed using a variety of coping mechanisms such as working out, journal writing, meditation, reaching out to friends/family, working on a solution with time management and/or assertiveness training, or communication with others. Managing stress is an important part of life for everyone.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has many similar symptoms as regular stress, and some additional ones, but the most important thing is that PTSD cannot be managed using only the traditional stress management coping mechanisms.

At the age of 18 I was held hostage by an ex-lover for six hours and beaten. He physically stopped me from leaving, he hurt me, and he threatened me with weapons. I wasn’t sure I was going to survive. Thankfully, I was able to escape and find help.

Months after the kidnapping I was very jumpy. I felt like I was on constant high alert andc82de35f60c1786b94080563f6ec7d1c (2) easily startled. I was often angry and ready to fight with anyone I felt was threatening; everyone felt like they were walking on eggshells around me. I was very emotional and would cry at the drop of a pin. Other times I was emotionally numb. I lashed out at people if they raised their voice, said something that reminded me of the incident, or tried to talk to me about what happened. I felt like I was a worthless, horrible person and that I was to blame for my kidnapping.

I had severe flashbacks during which I would remember the event in vivid clarity, feeling and sometimes acting as if I was there – especially if someone touched my wrists or neck.

I was constantly thinking about, or trying to avoid thinking about, the experience. My drug use increased because it helped me to not think about the event. I didn’t want to go outside. I didn’t go to class or see friends. I barely slept and when I did I was back in that room being hurt. Cold sweats, heart constantly racing, eyes constantly scanning my environment. I experienced very high anxiety anxiety levels and was very on edge, but most notably I was very scared. This was my life after trauma while in crisis.

Not everyone that experiences a trauma develops PTSD, but people who experience assault-based trauma are more likely to develop PTSD. This is especially true for war veterans. If you experience multiple traumas over a lifetime, or a continuing traumatic experience over many months or years where you are unsure if you will survive, your PTSD may be rated as chronic or complex by medical professionals, like mine is.

f37e8-ptsdinjury (2)When a person experiences something traumatic it is overwhelming and causes a lot of stress. It’s often an unexpected event where you feel powerless. It changes the way your brain works on a fundamental level, and even affects your physiology (see the image on the left). It is for these reasons that you cannot use the same coping mechanisms you use when you are simply “stressed out”.

If you think that you or someone you know has PTSD it is important to find professional help. Physicians can help you learn coping mechanisms that have been developed for people with PTSD. They can prescribe medications that can lessen your symptoms. They can help you find support groups and counseling. You can also check out online support groups on social media and see what members there suggest.

You are not alone in this!

Canadian Mental Health Association (find your local branch for PTSD support): http://www.cmha.ca/mental-health/find-help/

Where to get help for PTSD in the U.S.: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/where-to-get-help.asp


MindfulAidephoto 2

MindfulAide is a graduate of the University of Toronto with a degree in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence (Hons.). She is a coordinator and administrator at Ryerson University, and a practicing Bön Buddhist. As a survivor she is a passionate volunteer in multiple communities, regularly seeking out other survivors of sexual assault and violent crime to provide support. She enjoys video games, crafting, art, and reading. She has been diagnosed with chronic and complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. You can find more of her work at http://rememberhowtofly.com.

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