More and more people are realizing that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t just for war veterans.
But there are still lots of misconceptions about what trauma is and how it affects teens and young adults. In fact, two-thirds of young people experience at least one type of trauma before they turn 18, and most experience at least two traumas. Foster care alumni are diagnosed with PTSD at roughly twice the rates that military veterans are. And at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center where I’m a social worker, the majority of our patients have experienced trauma. Young people are often incredibly resilient and still need extra help to deal with symptoms of trauma.
Trauma can be any big, scary event or ongoing, stressful situation.
It often brings up complicated feelings like fear, anger, anxiety, stress, sadness and/or guilt. What’s traumatic to one person might not feel traumatic to someone else. Everyone is different, and that’s normal and ok. Trauma might include a car accident; a natural disaster like a tornado or hurricane; being abused, assaulted or bullied; witnessing violence; being homeless; or having a parent or caregiver who is incarcerated or has a severe mental illness or addiction.
Naming what you’re going through is often the first step in managing it.
If you’ve gone through trauma or know someone who has, understanding the brain and body’s reaction can be incredibly useful. If you can name the feelings and reactions you’re having, it can help you process and manage them. It also makes it easier to explain to the people around you, so they can understand and be supportive.
Remember that what you’re experiencing is a normal reaction to an abnormal event. You’re not “crazy,” and you’re not doomed to feel like this forever. However, this is not something you should try to deal with on your own. Talk to a trusted adult—like a school counselor, parent or other family member, teacher or doctor—about what you’re going through. They can help you find a therapist and get the support you need. You are not alone.
It’s common to experience trauma symptoms for several days or weeks after a traumatic event, or while the trauma is still going on.
However, if these symptoms continue for longer than a few months and they make it difficult to live your life—go to school, hang out with friends, enjoy the activities you participated in before the trauma—then it’s possible you have PTSD. However, you don’t have to have PTSD to be struggling, or to ask for help. If you are feeling confused or overwhelmed, or experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to someone you trust.
PTSD symptoms fall under four categories.
- Sudden, unexpected thoughts or images related to the trauma that pop into your head out of nowhere
- Recurring dreams or nightmares
- Flashbacks are sudden, intrusive memories or images that take you back to the trauma. During a flashback, it feels like the trauma is happening now.
- It’s normal to not want to experience difficult or painful emotions. You may try to avoid reminders and feelings related to the trauma. This might mean taking a different route to school to avoid a certain place, or avoiding talking about what happened.
- Sometimes, people’s minds become so overwhelmed that they disconnect (or dissociate). You may feel like what’s happening isn’t real, or that you’re separate from your body.
Difficult emotions and thoughts
- You may feel like the world is a scary and dangerous place and have thoughts like, “No one can be trusted,” “I’ll never be the same,” or “I’m broken.” This may make it hard to trust or feel safe with others.
- Tough emotions like sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt or constantly feeling irritable or on edge. Sometimes, your feelings may become so overwhelming you don’t know what to do about them.
- Losing interest in things or activities you used to enjoy, like sports, hobbies or friends.
- Feeling isolated, different or detached from the people around you.
- You may feel less emotionally invested in others, saying things like “I don’t care,” or “that’s not a big deal” when someone tells you something upsetting.
Arousal and reactivity
- Feeling constantly on edge, irritable or angry.
- Doing reckless or self-destructive things, like drinking too much alcohol, skipping school, having unprotected sex or deciding to ride the subway to the end of the line just to see where it will take you.
- Feeling like something bad is always about to happen. You may be constantly looking over your shoulder, on the lookout for danger. Or, you may feel like something bad will happen if you’re alone.
- Jump or startle easily. For example, you might jump if someone drops a book or feel on edge if someone talks to you with no warning.
- Having a hard time concentrating in school or at work.
- Having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Falling asleep suddenly or sleeping a lot more than usual.
If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, remember that you are not alone. There are effective treatments for PTSD and trauma. Again, talk to someone you trust and think about seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma. In the meantime, concentrate on taking care of yourself. Do things that make you feel good and healthy, like going for a walk, journaling and hanging out with friends. Eat healthily and get enough sleep whenever possible.
- Call SAMHSA’s 24/7 National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 to get connected to local resources.
- Text HOME to 741741 to message with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line.
- If you’re a young LGBTQ+ person, talk to a trained counselor from the Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline by calling 1-866-488-7386.
- If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC, call (212) 423-3000 to make an appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for comprehensive, confidential healthcare, including trauma-informed mental health services, at no cost to you.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.