by Sara Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.


Everybody experiences stress on a daily basis. There are also times when we experience temporary extreme stresses – such as dealing with overwhelming pressure at home, school or work, facing financial crises, coping with relationship difficulties, handling illness and so on. Our bodies can process a certain amount of stress for a certain amount of time and remain resilient. However, there are some stresses in life that tax our physical and mental capacities beyond their limits. When this occurs, we may experience “traumatic stress” disorder.

Traumatic stress disorder is a cluster of symptoms which develop following exposure to an extremely stressful event. In classic “post-traumatic stress disorder” the precipitating event is one of a life threatening nature. The person experiences intense fear, horror or helplessness while witnessing or experiencing an event involving actual or threatened death or serious injury. For example, someone may have witnessed or been involved in a serious car accident. There are people who have been in public places where a bombing or shooting has occurred. Someone may be the victim of violence or natural disaster. Sometimes a person will be present during a medical crisis or death of a loved one. Exposure to any of these kinds of events can be overwhelming.

After some delay, the person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder experiences three main kinds of symptoms:

  1. re-experiencing the event (having intrusive thoughts, recollections, flashbacks or dreams about it; not being able to “get over it.”)
  2. numbing (avoiding thoughts, conversations or reminders of the event; withdrawing from social contact; losing interest in activities; forgetting important aspects of the event)
  3. hyperarousal (symptoms of anxiety, irritability, poor concentration, insomnia, increased startle response).

These symptoms are seen in the case of Rachel X who was the victim of a violent robbery while vacationing in South America. Rachel was in a hotel room, asleep in her bed, when three masked and armed robbers burst into her room. They grabbed her, demanded her money, threatened her life and then left the room. Although Rachel was not hurt physically, she had been through a “near-death” experience and suffered trauma. Five years later, Rachel still had nightmares about the event and suffered from intermittent insomnia. She became hypervigilant of noises, darkness and other signs of danger – to the point where she seldom left her house and engaged in multiple door-locking and checking routines. She became avoidant of men in general and slowly closed into her own world, withdrawing from friends and activities that she had once enjoyed. Most painful of all, Rachel began to think she was going crazy – she could not help herself or calm herself down. She just couldn’t get over the events of that day, no matter how hard she tried. Without treatment, Rachel might continue to experience such symptoms for years to come. Untreated post-traumatic stress disorder can last decades or a life-time.

People can experience some of the same elements of traumatic stress disorder as a result of non-life-threatening events as well. For example, when someone experiences intense stress for a long period of time, the mind/body can become overwhelmed. Thus, living with emotional and/or physical abuse can result in some of the symptoms of traumatic stress disorder. Similarly, enduring deprivation due to poverty may cause some of the symptoms. Having painful medical, obstetrical and dental experiences may cause some symptoms. Any severe stressor may result in a neurochemcial change in the body leading to symptomatic behaviour.

If a person has a full or partial syndrome of traumatic stress disorder, he or she can be helped. Traditional treatment consists of short or long-term psychotherapy in which a person is gently helped to assimilate the experience of stress and to re-organize it conceptually and emotionally. This reorganization leads to a reduction in many of the disturbing mental and physical symptoms. Because neurotransmitters are altered by the stress experience, it is sometimes beneficial to use psychotropic medications to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression associated with the trauma response. In addition, there are several new “power therapies” which provide very brief and effective treatments for the relief of traumatic stress symptoms. These include, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), TIR (Traumatic Incident Reduction), and TFT (Thought Field Therapy) among others. Some of these treatments take only hours (or, in the case of TFT, only minutes) to permanently remove or reduce symptoms. Even if a person has suffered for years, these therapies can help restore more normal functioning.

Traumatic stress responses can happen to anyone. They are not a sign of mental illness – rather, they are the body’s natural response to overwhelming stress. It is important to get relief from these symptoms so that life can be enjoyed and lived to the fullest