Special Topics: Reacting to Stressful Events: Signs & Symptoms

There are many events in our lives that cause us to feel emotional and/or psychological stress. Most of us have experienced critical incidents in our lives that have created stress. Even positive events such as weddings, graduations or becoming a parent can cause stress that appears and may have the same symptoms and feel similar to the effects of death of a loved one, witnessing or experiencing violence, loss of a job or a difficult divorce or break-up

Psychological trauma is an emotional or psychological injury, that usually results from extremely stressful or life-threatening situations.

During high stress events people may experience
acute stress disorder, which may cease when the event is over. This can be described as an emotional or psychological  shock reaction with severe and upsetting responses.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop following exposure to a critical event which results in psychological trauma. These critical events may include the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one's own or someone else's physical, sexual, or psychological integrity or other events that overwhelm a person’s psychological defenses.  There has been an increased awareness that combat veterans, returning from deployment and civilian first responders suffer from PTSD more frequently than was recognized previously.

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​​​People react to stressful events in different ways. Some people have strong reactions right away, while others, reactions are mild.Stressful events can affect our bodies, minds, and behavior. For some individuals symptoms of stress are felt immediately, but for others the effects may be delayed.  Usually the impact of the stressful event changes over time. 

​Stress reactions affect individuals physically, emotionally, mentally and behaviorally. The most common reactions to stress producing critical incidents are:

  • Physical: Fatigue, headaches, nausea, stomach pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, numbness in extremities, rapid or irregular heartbeat and chest pain, among others.

  • Emotional: Fear, nervousness, sadness, guilt, anger, irritability, agitation, anger, rapid mood swings, shock, emotional numbness, helplessness, hopelessness or depression among many others.

  •  Mental: Obsessive, racing or intrusive thoughts, short-term memory lapses, poor concentration, dissociation, hyper-vigilance and suicidal or homicidal thoughts among others.

  •  Behavioral: Tearfulness, combativeness, loss of appetite, overeating, insomnia, sleeping too much, and increased alcohol or other substance use (including abuse of prescribed medications) among others.

If you experience any of the above symptoms seek the opinions of your family doctor. If you experience chest pain you should go to the emergency room at the nearest hospital, even if you believe that the cause is anxiety or stress. If you have thoughts of self harm or homicidal thoughts call a suicide hotline, call your doctor or go to the nearest hospital emergency room. If you are under the care of a mental health professional call them as soon as you can.