Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

I think I suffer from post traumatic stress? What should I do to recover?

by James Porter March 17, 2017

Since you don’t know for sure if you have PTSD* let’s start with some basic information to help you make this determination.

  • Only a small percentage of people who experience a traumatic event, later develop PTSD. The vast majority do not.
  • PTSD isn’t even diagnosed until at least two months after the exposure to trauma (and usually it appears much later: On average, two years).
  • Trauma victims can and often do experience PTSD-like symptoms right after a traumatic event: you might have trouble sleeping, you might experience nightmares, even flashbacks, you might feel unusually anxious and find ways to self-medicate this anxiety. You might even want to isolate yourself from the ones you love most. You might be disturbed by crowds, loud noises, tight spaces or anything you might associate with the trauma. That’s normal. In the vast majority of cases these symptoms will fade away within a couple of months.

It’s when the above symptoms linger beyond a couple of months, or in some cases pop up years later - out of the blue - that a psychologist will even consider a diagnosis of PTSD. That’s why it’s called POST Traumatic Stress. It occurs well AFTER the traumatic event.

It’s important to note that you can suffer trauma in three surprisingly different ways.

  1. You experience a traumatic event directly. Examples of traumatic events you experience directly include a serious car accident, a mugging, rape, acts of war, molestation, child abuse and so forth.
  2. You witness a traumatic event. If you were in downtown New York on 9/11 and saw people jumping out of windows, or at the finish line of the Boston Marathon several years ago, or if you were to witness your battle buddy getting his head blown off in a skirmish, that’s often just as traumatic as surviving a serious injury or act of war yourself, maybe even more so, if you throw survivor’s guilt into the mix.
  3. You can actually get it third hand, too. For example, after the school shooting in Newtown, CT, where so many children were killed, there were debriefers set up to talk to any of the first responders who were devastated by what they had just seen. (Dealing with children in situations like this, often affects first responders profoundly.) There were so many first responders who needed “debriefing” that even the debriefers themselves (who had not witnessed these scenes directly) were suffering from this third-hand way of being exposed to trauma.

In those people who DO develop PTSD usually, it doesn’t start becoming a problem for about year or two. And for some Vietnam War Vets, symptoms of PTSD can pop up as much as 30 years later.

Another important thing to know about PTSD is that the vast majority of people who experience TRAUMA don’t develop PTSD. Estimates range between 8% and 30% of people exposed to trauma will later develop PTSD. So even if you directly experienced a traumatic event, you are far more likely NOT to experience long-term psychological problems. (Short-term problems, however, are common in everyone.)

Commanding officers of PT 109. JFK is sitting in the middle.

Getting stronger as the result of trauma

Some people even experience what trauma experts call: Post Traumatic Growth. They ultimately come out stronger on the other side of a traumatic event. Certainly this was true for Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Even John F. Kennedy, who survived having his tiny PT boat being split in two by a Japanese Destroyer during WWII, used this traumatic experience, as a platform for growth.

Symptoms of PTSD

So lets review some of the symptoms you might be suffering from if you have developed PTSD: anger issues, isolating oneself, flashbacks, nightmares, trouble sleeping, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, fear of doing things that you were NOT afraid of before, like going to a big sporting event, driving a car or even believe it or not, going to the beach. (I personally interviewed soldiers at Ft. Dix who said after coming back from IRAQ - or what they commonly call the “sandbox” - they had no desire to go anywhere NEAR a beach.) A therapist is usually going to look for a cluster of these symptoms occurring before making a diagnosis of PTSD.

So let’s talk about exactly what you can do if, after reading this article, you DO feel like you suffer from PTSD. First of all, you should seek out some kind of help, medical assistance, or counseling, particularly if you have ANY thoughts of self-harming. Most Vets and soldiers feel that if they “tough it out” this problem will disappear on it’s own. But, during a traumatic event the body often freezes (as in the fight flight or freeze response) and when that happens, bits of memory can just float around in your brain and can later appear unbidden, in the form of flashbacks. You can’t control these unbidden thoughts consciously. So there is no way you can TOUGH it out, no matter how strong you are.

Thus, it’s very difficult to deal with this level of PTSD (or cope with substance abuse, anger issues, and self-harming thoughts) without the help of a qualified therapist. Finding a therapist who has had experience dealing with patients with PTSD is something you should consider carefully. Also, if you feel you don’t want to talk about your traumatic experience, find a therapist, who feels confident that they can help without insisting that you recall every detail of the experience as way of healing yourself from it. (The jury is out on this method of therapy. It helps some people and not others.)

I’ve heard of therapists using mindfulness methods to help bring soldiers and other patients with PTSD back into the present moment by just helping them become more aware of their surroundings. Noticing what it feels like to sit in a chair for example, rather than letting ones’ thoughts run wild. Guided imagery works also. Check out Belleruth Naperstek’s book and audios. You might want to also consider EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Nobody really understands why this works, but there has been a fair amount of research about it and I don’t think it could possibly do any harm.

And finally, the CD I produced: A DAY AWAY FROM STRESS has sold thousands and thousands of copies to the military. Camp Pendleton Marine Corp Base alone has purchased over 20,000 copies to give out to Marines returning from the Middle East. You can sample it and download it directly from the link above. It contains some very easy to follow methods for helping you relax when you feel anxious.

I hope all this information helps you and others with PTSD decide when and how to seek treatment. All branches of the military have spent the last ten years or so trying to de-stigmatize and treat this mental health issue, so if you are in the military, there are counselors and trained specialists who can help you. You simply have to reach out and ASK for that help.

If you are not in the military, you will definitely want to do some research and find counselors who have dealt with cases of PTSD before. Interview them and ask them questions and get to know them a bit before you commit to long or short term counseling. It’s your relationship with your therapist (when it’s good) that is most likely to help you heal, far more than whatever methods they employ as part of their practice. So make sure you have a sense of trust and a comfort level with whomever it is you choose.

*Military folks, btw, have started to drop the word disorder from the the name Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - calling it just Post Traumatic Stress - in order to help de-stigmatize this condition. However, since the general public knows this condition as PTSD I’m going to stick with that name here.

This question was originally answered on Click here to see more of his answers on Quora. Do you have a question for Jim? Email your question to with "Ask Jim" as the subject line.

James Porter
James Porter


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