Recognizing PTSD in Yourself and Others

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
Edited by Joe DeNoon

Trauma and PTSD are mental health concerns that anyone can experience. We all experience stressors, and, while not all traumatic experiences lead to a diagnosis like PTSD, anyone who has experienced a traumatic, life-threatening, or life-changing event can be diagnosed with PTSD. Another factor to keep in mind is that the same event could affect people in different ways. For example, two people experience a stressful incident, and one person may suffer from PTSD symptoms, while the other person walks away from the event with negative memories, but no PTSD symptoms. 

Although PTSD can happen to anyone, there are some factors that may increase the likelihood that a person could suffer from PTSD. These factors include exposure to stressful events/traumatic events, family history of anxiety or depression, temperament, how your brain regulates the stress response (hormones and chemicals the body releases), and working in occupations such as the military, nursing, EMT, law enforcement, and fire fighting. Nurses can be exposed to trauma A LOT, so how can we tell if we are experiencing PTSD? 

Some common symptoms of PTSD: 

Unwanted/Intrusive memories and images. This includes:

    • Nightmares
    • Flashbacks, a visual experience where you relive some parts of the traumatic event and you feel as if the traumatic event is happening right now. 
    • Thoughts paired with intense distress, such as pain, sweating, nausea, and fast heart beat. 
    • Physical/mental distress triggered by sight, sound, smells, and internal emotions/feelings that are reminders of the stressful event.

Alertness/Feeling on Edge

    • Panicking when reminded of the trauma
    • Being easily upset/angry  
    • Extreme alertness
    • Easily startled
    • Constantly vigilant for danger
    • Unable to sleep
    • Finding it hard to concentrate 

Avoidance, a very common reaction

    • Resisting thoughts or conversations about the traumatic event
    • Avoiding the things that remind you of the traumatic event
    • Unable to remember details of the trauma
    • Feeling emotionally numb/cut off from your feelings
    • Feeling physically numb/detached from your body 
    • Unable to connect with emotions because they feel too overwhelming 
    • Using alcohol or drugs to avoid memories 

Changes in feelings about self/the world

    • Distrust of the world/others around you 
    • Negative thoughts of self
    • Feeling nowhere is safe
    • Feeling like no one understands
    • Blaming self for what happened or an increase in blaming self
    • Overwhelming feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, or shame 
    • Hopelessness, helplessness 
    • Feelings of detachment and difficulty sustaining close relationships
    • Emotional numbness/inability to experience positive emotions

Now this is a big list to look at, and I am sure that everyone can relate to some symptoms on this list after experiencing stressful situations at work. To be diagnosed with PTSD, these symptoms have to affect most aspects of your life and impact you at work, with friends, and with family. 

There is also feelings of shame in experiencing trauma and ‘not being able to handle it’. “I chose this job, I knew what I was getting into with it.” There can be a culture of just ‘pushing through it’ in the jobs where a lot of traumatic events can happen. Even when the events we are talking about are the death of a patient or a really tough break for a patient, just pushing through it is promoted in many workplaces when a person can return to work the next day or even return to work in the next five minutes.

In my past jobs, you were thought of as “tough” if you could return right back to work after a stressful event. Taking a break after a stressful case may even be promoted by supervisors and bosses, but there is that positive feedback that you get when you just go right back to work. Whether it is a thank you or ‘we really needed you’, praise for being able to push through is something that is very present in a job like nursing. Notice these little ways that overworking or pushing through are promoted in your place of work. This leaves out the fact that people have different needs. Some people need to move to the next task and process later, while others need a break to process and then go back to work. Neither is better than the other. The priority should be that you get what you need. 

One of the toughest parts about PTSD is that you cannot process the trauma on your own. You need to ask for help. However, with nursing, you are supposed to be the helpers, so it can be hard to shift that role and be the one asking for help. There are many ways to process trauma such as medications, talk therapy, EMDR therapy, animal assisted therapy, and more. There are people who dedicate their whole careers to focusing on people who have experienced trauma, so it is not something to work through on your own. No amount of self-care, routines, positive self-talk, and gratitude can make you process through a trauma. These techniques can help you regulate enough to be able to manage your emotions while processing trauma, but they cannot process the neural networks created or stop your amygdala from being activated by triggers. For PTSD, you need to seek professional support. I would recommend even seeking a professional that has specific training in trauma. 

If you feel you are possibly suffering from PTSD after reading this, please go and seek a professional opinion and professional support! When looking for a therapist/professional support, also look for experience specifically regarding trauma. If you have any questions about what you need to look for, please ask on the blog, email, or read my first blog


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