Understanding the Different Responses to Traumatic Stress

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Make the Connection offers peer testimonials from veterans and service members who have sought help for stress issues, as well as resources for understanding symptoms and finding treatment.

If you’ve ever directly or indirectly experienced a shocking or life-threatening event—from a car accident or operational mishap, to sexual assault or combat exposure—you may recall a few of your body’s reactions. Your muscles may have tensed and you may have started breathing rapidly, preparing to protect yourself or escape to avoid harm. Or you may have felt physically unable to move or react; temporarily paralyzed. This reflexive response is known as “fight, flight or freeze.[1]” It is the brain’s pre-programmed way of preparing the body for perceived or actual threats—or temporarily impairing its ability to react to the threat—and is a normal frontline reaction to extreme stress. Once the threat has passed, the body can naturally return to its optimal state, rebalancing functions that were briefly intensified or suppressed.

While the body can self-regulate, some reactions may linger for a short time afterward, such as feeling nervous or overly cautious when a situation reminds you of the traumatic experience. These reactions—which may temporarily impair behavior or function—are known as posttraumatic stress. In many cases, posttraumatic stress symptoms will subside naturally within a few days or weeks following the traumatic experience. Speaking with a chaplain, harnessing the support of friends and family, as well as maintaining a balanced diet and fitness regimen can help ease posttraumatic stress symptoms and promote recovery. Practicing self-care can also help build resilience after a traumatic experience. Try journal writing as a tool to promote calmness while expressing feelings, worries and concerns. If you have questions about your stress reactions or those of a shipmate or loved one, the Defense Centers of Excellence (DcoE) Outreach Center is a 24/7 non-clinical resource that can connect you with answers and additional support tools.

Anyone can be at risk of developing injuries and illnesses from stress. Reactions vary by individual and are influenced by several factors, from genetics and neurobiology, to available social support and positive coping skills. Some may not encounter extended or interfering symptoms after a traumatic experience. For others, these experiences (or other situations like the sudden loss of a loved one) may lead to development of more lasting and serious psychological health impacts, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a clinically-diagnosable stress illness where certain symptoms persist over an extended period of time and severely interfere with daily function. Some of the symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Re-living the event through flashbacks and/or nightmares, or reacting to reminders of the event (known as re-experiencing);
  • Losing interest in previously enjoyable activities and/or avoiding things or people that may be reminders of the event (known as avoidance); and
  • Becoming easily agitated or constantly feeling on edge (known as arousal). [2]

PTSD can feel like a constant state of “fight, flight or freeze” even when there is no actual threat present. While PTSD can only be diagnosed and treated by a behavioral health provider, acknowledging your feelings and talking to someone about your experiences are important first steps toward recovery. Remember that you are not alone. By visiting www.maketheconnection.net, you can view hundreds of candid video testimonials shared by veterans, service members and their families who have experienced various forms of trauma, sought help and returned to living life fully. Additionally, Make the Connection offers customized information relevant to your own experiences, helping you better understand and navigate the issues you may be facing while connecting you with resources and services near you.

The National Center for PTSD and the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2) have developed a mobile app available for Apple and Android devices, designed to assist service members, veterans and civilians who may be experiencing PTSD symptoms. PTSD Coach includes features that provide users with individualized feedback on their symptoms while suggesting coping skills, sources of emotional support and professional treatment resources.

Whether navigating daily stress, posttraumatic stress or PTSD, remember that it’s okay to speak up when you’re down. The more you are able to talk about your experiences, the less power the intrusive memories will have over you. Seeking the help of a qualified professional can help you understand your symptoms, build new coping skills and return to living a full, productive and meaningful life.

For more information on PTSD, visit the National Center for PTSD. For immediate help, call the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (Press 1).

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201507/trauma-and-the-freeze-response-good-bad-or-both

[2] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml

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