How do you define trauma?

Do you believe a person has to experience a life-threatening event to be traumatized?

Although the media tosses around the term post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD nonchalantly, it’s a very real condition. Some believe that professionals misdiagnose PTSD far too often. Rather than addressing PTSD or embracing it in your own life, take a second look at stress. It could be the true culprit anyway.

So how do you tell the difference?

Here are a few tips.

A Process or Prevention?

With all the media chatter surrounding PTSD, it has become an incredibly popular mental health assessment. In fact, a PTSD diagnosis almost carries a certain social value to it.

Stress, to many people, just means that you might have had a bad week at work. Except there is no “just” to it.

Though it doesn’t harm or debilitate you in the same way that trauma does, it greatly upsets the balance in your life. Most of the time, you sense the imbalance on a daily basis.

Some believe that stress is the process of living. On the other hand, trauma can prevent you from living.

While looking to pinpoint whether you’re stressed or traumatized, think about how it influences your life.

Trauma is always stressful, but stress isn’t always traumatic. You can know the difference by the way you carry on with life. Most people, with the help of friends or a professional, can embrace coping mechanisms for handling stress. But trauma often keeps you feeling trapped in the past.

Anxiety Attacks vs Panic Attacks

Stress often transpires through anxiety attacks. While experiencing an attack like this can be disturbing, symptoms usually stay within well-defined boundaries.

For instance, you will undoubtedly feel distressed during an attack. Your heart rate will increase, thoughts will race, and breathing will become rapid. All very uncomfortable symptoms.

It’s important to remember that anxiety attacks are a product of stress. Usually, it’s your current situation that causes the stress and, therefore, the attack. You’ll feel taken aback until you leave the situation or it resolves itself.

Panic attacks are more intense and often rooted in trauma. Though they also have well-defined boundaries, symptoms overlap and even extend beyond those of an anxiety attack.

Panic attacks are debilitating. You tend not to find a reprieve through situational resolve because situations don’t typically cause them. They make you feel like you could actually die. You won’t, of course, but the feeling is very real.

To differentiate between stress and trauma, take stock in the type of attacks you may be experiencing. They can often lead you to a correct diagnosis.

Gauge Your Symptoms

As mentioned before, symptoms of stress and trauma often overlap. Thanks to our autonomic nervous system, many people can cope with stress. Often people struggling with trauma and panic attacks are unable to return to a state of calm.

Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of your autonomic nervous system responsible for the “fight or flight” response. This activation actually changes the state of your body.

Essentially your body prepares to defend itself from imminent danger. For example, your nervous system might not tell the difference between a vicious grizzly bear and an impending deadline at work.

Once the danger has passed, your parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system takes over, and you return to a state of calm. This calm state is otherwise known as homeostasis.

Those dealing with trauma frequently live in a constant “fight or flight” mode. You may experience flashbacks and relive the traumatic event in your mind. Because of this, you’ll often avoid anything that could possibly trigger memories of the event.

Also, it’s not uncommon to practice hypervigilance or even experience a significant mood change after the event that seems to linger. You may start to embrace negative beliefs about yourself, others, or the world because of the trauma.

Trauma takes stress a step further and sort of bolts the door behind it. Thankfully, both stress and trauma can be treated in a number of ways so that you can reclaim your life.

Take the first step…

If you are ready to explore stress and/or trauma in your own life, I would like to help. Please contact me via phone or email so we can discuss how we might work together to achieve your therapeutic goals as quickly and effectively as possible.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Linda K. Laffey, MFT

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