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Old 10-31-2004, 04:54 PM
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What is traumatic distress?

What is Traumatic Distress?

In this series of articles I will be using a variety of terms relating to the topic of trauma, and I would like readers to have a clear understanding of their meaning. First, it is very important to separate a traumatic event from an individual’s reaction to that event. A traumatic experience is a potentially terrifying situation in which an individual fears severe personal injury to him/herself or witnesses a threat to another individual. The key word is “potentially.” Two individuals can be in the exact same frightening situation and one will react with little or no discomfort while others might experience high levels of distress. Likewise, some situations are more likely to be traumatizing than others. For example, soldiers who experience severe combat or exposure to atrocities are more likely to react with fear and horror than soldiers who never see combat or who participate in minor skirmishes.

Traumatic distress refers to the emotional and psychological symptoms, or reactions, a traumatized individual experiences as a result of exposure to a traumatic event. Phrases such as “traumatic distress” and “symptoms of PTSD” are general terms referring to some level of distress that might vary from mild to severe. Some of these symptoms are nightmares, unwanted thoughts , and relationship problems. When symptoms are severe and last for a long time, an individual is likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. Many survivors initially suffer traumatic distress, but symptoms usually subside within a few months. About 30% of Vietnam veterans have met the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD at some point in their lives, with another 20% reporting some symptoms10,11.

What is the Relationship Between Spirituality and PTSD?

We know very little about the relationship between spirituality and symptoms of PTSD. Unfortunately, spirituality has long been a taboo subject in Western healthcare practices, a situation that has started to improve during the past 20 years. Spiritual alienation and loss of meaning have been identified by clinicians as issues that are distressing to veterans seeking treatment for symptoms of PTSD3,5,6,7.

Spiritual alienation means separation from the transcendent, the divine, or God. Regardless of the cause of spiritual isolation, it is likely to be associated with traumatic distress. Difficulty with interpersonal relationships, including estrangement from others, is a core feature of PTSD. Likewise, a problematic relationship with God, or separation from God, might also contribute to traumatic distress. It is well known among mental health providers that feeling supported by others is crucial to a trauma survivor’s recovery process. In contrast, researchers have found that unsupportive behaviors may have a greater influence, delaying recovery or even contributing to symptoms of PTSD12,13,14 Veterans who desire the support of their Divine Creator might experience greater ongoing distress if they feel their needs have not been met.

Some aspects of spirituality might protect an individual from traumatic distress. The ability to make sense of a traumatic event in a way that “fits” with one’s previous beliefs not only reduces the likelihood of PTSD, it may even lead to psychological or spiritual growth8,15,16,17 Limited research has found that combat veterans who were able to find meaning and purpose in their traumatic experiences were less likely to develop PTSD3,4.
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