Some events in life affect us so deeply that they change the way we think, act, and feel for years afterward.
When you think about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may picture war veterans or victims of childhood abuse. But PTSD can be caused by a range of life events; it can result from a one-time incident or repeated traumatic experiences.
Not everyone who deals with trauma develops PTSD. Others are plagued by constant thoughts about what happened. Their symptoms can be so severe that they interfere with the person’s ability to work, take care of themselves, or enjoy things they once loved.
According to Statistics Canada, roughly 8% of Canadians meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. PTSD changes the way your brain processes information. It can have long-lasting effects on your daily life.
But what does PTSD look like? Below, we’ll discuss how this mental health condition can affect you, from the moments after a traumatic event to years down the line:
Before we explain these stages, we’re going to briefly cover what PTSD is:
After witnessing or experiencing trauma (for example, a car accident, a natural disaster, emotional/physical abuse, a pandemic, or sexual assault), some people experience disturbing thoughts and flashbacks that persist for months or years.
You can think of PTSD as a survival instinct. It’s your brain’s way of trying to prevent you from being in that type of danger again.
Months after the threat has passed, your body is still in fight-or-flight mode. You have constant negative thoughts about the event, experience flashbacks triggered by certain sights or smells, and try to avoid situations that remind you of the traumatic experience.
The main PTSD symptoms that someone experiences are:
Events that cause intense mental or physical distress can have lasting effects on that person’s mental health. If those symptoms persist months after the event took place, they could be dealing with PTSD.
Why do some people develop PTSD while others do not? Even if two people experience the same traumatic event, each person may feel entirely differently afterward.
If you have a history of mental illness or substance abuse, you may be more likely to develop PTSD. In addition, women are at a higher risk than men for developing this condition.
Given how prevalent PTSD is, those who study it have noticed that survivors tend to experience a similar set of “stages”. In other words, they go through phases that are comparable to one another.
Keep in mind that everyone reacts to trauma differently. Your experience may look entirely different from what’s described below—and that’s totally normal.
On top of that, progress is not linear. You may go back and forth between the stages rather than progressing from one to the next.
For those suffering from PTSD, here’s what those stages might look like:
This is what follows immediately after a traumatic event takes place. The person may be in a state of shock as they try to process what they witnessed or what happened to them.
People in this stage may feel numb, guilty, afraid, nervous, and ashamed. They may be hyper-aware of everything going on around them, as their body and brain are on high alert.
The impact or emergency stage typically lasts for a few hours, but it could persist for weeks.
As we mentioned earlier, if you’re experiencing PTSD, you may not go through this stage at all. But in some cases, people who experience trauma feel emotional numbness after the event.
They may be in denial about what happened or downplay the severity of it. They may avoid thinking about it or talking about it with anyone. This is a way of protecting themselves from the stress and anxiety caused by the trauma.
Now that some of the initial shock has worn off, the affected individual begins to accept what happened to them. They move past the initial stage described earlier and start to process the event.
The rescue phase doesn’t mean that the person “moves on” from what happened—they simply begin to confront, understand, and comprehend their trauma.
They may acknowledge the event in different ways—by visiting the site where it happened, writing about it, or opening up to other people about it. They may seek support groups to chat with people who experienced similar traumatic events.
As the survivor reflects on what happened to them, a range of emotions can come up. Feelings of shock and denial are still common in the rescue phase. Other emotions include:
Now, the individual’s life starts to return to the way it was before the traumatic event. They may go back to work/school or leave the hospital. But now, they’re facing new challenges in their daily life as a result of that event.
The individual may start to experience physical symptoms, like sleep disturbances and flashbacks.
As the person’s friends and family members learn about what happened, the person may receive a lot of support (or a lack of it). This typically goes one of two ways:
As time passes, the individual must learn how to move forward despite what happened to them. They start to accept that they aren’t the same person as before and may mourn the life they used to have.
If they experience a triggering event, they may regress to one of the previous stages and then return to the long-term recovery stage.
This phase can last the longest of all the ones we’ve listed—a person can spend their whole life learning to live with and manage what happened to them. But with time and professional help, they can recover.
So, in light of all that, you’re probably wondering how long PTSD lasts overall.
The answer looks different for everyone, so it’s impossible to give just one answer. But PTSD recovery is possible, and we offer trauma counselling services to help you through that process.
Your past doesn’t define you—you can overcome PTSD and come out the other side as a more resilient person. With professional help, you can learn new coping strategies and recover from traumatic events.
At One Life Counselling and Coaching, our therapeutic approaches are evidence-based. We focus on helping you reprocess the way you think about your trauma and develop healthier strategies for managing it. Some of our PTSD treatments include:
Change the story you tell yourself through EMDR. Using this treatment, you’ll learn to reframe what happened to you to eliminate negative and self-defeating beliefs.
You’ll come to understand the event differently and accept that it wasn’t your fault, you did all that you could, and you never deserved what happened to you. This helps free you from the negative symptoms that PTSD is defined by, including severe anxiety and flashbacks.
Your thoughts influence your behaviours. CBT teaches you to separate the two. If you feel like PTSD is holding you back in life, this treatment can help.
For example, you can’t change the past, and you can’t undo what happened to you. But moving forward, you can control how you react to triggering situations or stressors in life. You’ll discover new strategies for managing negative emotions.
Traumatic events can cause extreme emotions. Often, trauma survivors turn to self-destructive coping mechanisms. How do you manage these powerful emotions and deal with them in a healthy way?
DBT is based on two fundamentals: Acceptance and change. Acceptance is about validating your reactions. You don’t put yourself down or suppress what you’re feeling, whether it’s guilt, shame, anger, or confusion. And then, you strive to change how you react to those feelings.
This is just an overview of what your treatment might look like, but it’s different for everyone. If you’re interested in PTSD therapy, we’d love to help you. When you contact us, we’ll connect you with a therapist who can create your custom treatment plan. Book your appointment at One Life Counselling and Coaching today.