How Is PTSD Unlike a Normal Stress Response?
Everyone deals with stress at some point or other in life. Whether in response to a physical threat or to a perceived social or emotional risk, the stress response is the body’s way of preparing to face or flee from danger. It involves a series of physical, psychological, and behavioral reactions that enable people to deal with the stressor and then return to their normal behaviors.
However, for people who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as a result of being exposed to extreme danger, threat, violence, or death, the stress response is heightened and can lead to physical and psychological distress far beyond what is experienced in a normal stress response. In addition, people with PTSD tend to struggle with symptoms in situations where a person without the disorder would not have a stress response. Details of the differences in reaction are summarized below.
Normal Stress Response:
According to Mayo Clinic, the effects of a normal stress response on the body include:
- Muscle tension or pain
- Digestive upset
- Accelerated respiration and heart rate
These symptoms are the result of the body releasing certain hormones that prepare the body for what is called the fight-or-flight response. This response prepares the body to deal with the danger physically by either facing it or running away.
The symptoms can be stronger if the threat is perceived to be a greater danger. However, after the stress has ended, the body releases additional hormones that return everything to normal over a short period of time. Even for those who experience chronic stress, it is possible to return the body’s response to normal once the stressor is resolved.
In a person who is experiencing a normal stress response, the hormones involved also have a powerful effect on the brain. According to information from Harvard Medical School, this corresponds with the physical response to heighten the person’s awareness and increase reaction time when it may be critical. The person may experience the following psychological symptoms in response to normal stress:
- Mild to moderate anxiety
- Increased focus and attention
Again, these symptoms can be fairly easily resolved once the stress is removed, even in the case of chronic stress.
An individual who is dealing with a normal stress response may respond with abnormal behaviors for a while that might be upsetting to the individual and loved ones. For example, the moodiness and anxiety of stress can make personal interactions and relationships more strained.
A person dealing with stress might also indulge in substance use or other behaviors meant to self-medicate the feelings that arise from stress. Overeating or using alcohol, tranquilizers, or other drugs might make a person feel more in control during the stress reaction.
Again, when the stressor is resolved, a person dealing with the normal stress response is more likely than a person with PTSD to cease these behaviors and return to normal behavior.PTSD Response:
Rather than simply having a temporary effect on physical health, the PTSD response can have both acute and chronic symptoms. As described by the National Center for PTSD, research has shown that people with PTSD are likely to have more lasting problems with their health than those who do not have PTSD. Some of the physical issues include:
- Musculoskeletal problems
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal disorders
Research is still being done on the prevalence of these issues and how it is that PTSD affects them. Nevertheless, it is evident that people who experience trauma are more likely to utilize medical services for physical issues.
For the person with PTSD, the emotional and cognitive response is heightened compared to that of a person who does not have PTSD. In fact, the individual with PTSD maintains many of the psychological symptoms of stress chronically, even when there is no stressor around. For example, a person with PTSD may have heightened anxiety and hyper-attentiveness even in a benign situation, like going out to dinner.
In addition, as described by Psychology Today, people with PTSD have psychological symptoms that those who don’t have it don’t generally experience, including:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event through nightmares or flashbacks
- Displaying intense emotion when confronted with reminders of the event
- Feeling hypervigilant at all times
- Having extreme responses to minor stimuli such as being startled
Because the person who is struggling with PTSD is dealing with an intense stressor at all times, it can be difficult to feel healthy or whole. As a result, the individual may engage in self-medicating or self-destructive behaviors in an effort to ease the discomfort of symptoms, as described in the PTSD Research Quarterly. As a result, people with PTSD are more likely to experience substance use disorders and severe depression or anxiety that leads to suicidal ideation.
In addition, the individual with PTSD may be more likely to have a violent behavioral or emotional response to a minor stressor, such as being startled. Outbursts or defensive reactions can be provoked very easily. This can put a great strain on relationships and make the person uncomfortable or fearful of being in public places where a panic attack or violent reaction may occur.
For the person who has experienced a trauma and comes out of it with PTSD, something in the stress response has malfunctioned, making it difficult for the brain to return to normal. PTSD results in a chemical and communication problem within the brain that leads to these heightened emotions and physical responses.
The struggle with PTSD is much more intense than with a normal stress response; however, it can be resolved through caring and careful treatment. A variety of therapies, such as trauma-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be beneficial in helping the individual understand the symptoms of PTSD and learn to manage them, leading to a more positive future.