When does a trauma become a mental disorder?

According to a South African study on stress and health, one in seven South Africans will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime, which puts them at high risk of developing an acute stress disorder which can become an illness. more serious and long-term mental illness if left untreated.

The country’s high rates of crime, traffic accidents and interpersonal violence, as well as very public violent events such as the July 2021 unrest and looting in KZN and Gauteng, also increase the risk for the South. -Africans from developing acute stress disorder, SA Society of Psychiatrists spokesperson, Dr Gagu Matsebula said.

According Psychology today acute stress disorder affects up to 20% of people who experience or witness traumatic events such as death, serious injury, or physical or sexual violence, and about half of these will develop stress disorder trauma (PTSD) with a debilitating illness. impact on their work and life opportunities.

On World Mental Health Day (October 10, 2022), Dr Matsebula said getting a mental health checkup is just as important as a physical health checkup after a traumatic event.

He said rates of acute stress disorder had also likely increased due to isolation, experiences of the death of loved ones and daily reports of deaths, fear of infection and personal and financial stresses. of the Covid-19 pandemic.

SEE ALSO: The more stressed you are, the more unbearable you find your partner

What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute stress disorder has similar symptoms to PTSD, but is shorter in duration, lasting three days to a month.

If symptoms last longer than a month, the diagnosis becomes PTSD, making it important to seek help and treatment as soon as symptoms appear.

SEE ALSO: Noticeable increase in the number of people with complex PTSD

What causes acute stress disorder?

Acute stress disorder can develop in response to a personal experience of trauma, such as the unexpected death of a loved one, being the victim of physical abuse, or being involved in an accident, but can also result from witnessing or hearing about death, serious injury or violence, personally or through the media.

“Different people experience and react to trauma differently. Sometimes it’s not the victim of the traumatic event who develops acute stress disorder – it can be someone who witnessed the event, or even the perpetrator,” he said. .

Those with existing mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression or a substance use disorder; and those with a family history of mental illness or who have previously experienced mental or physical trauma are at higher risk of developing acute stress disorder after a traumatic event.

First responders, journalists covering violent events and researchers studying conflict are also at greater risk.

Symptoms to watch out for

Symptoms of acute stress disorder include “intrusive symptoms” of recurrent memories, flashbacks, and nightmares, and “avoidance symptoms” of trying to avoid thinking or remembering the event and avoid people, places, or conversations that trigger reminders of the event.

“Flashbacks are involuntary and intrusive, in that the memories keep coming back even though you don’t want them to, and they lead to feelings of distress, the feeling that one is reliving the trauma.

“In order to avoid thinking or remembering the event, people tend to exercise or exhaust themselves, so they don’t have time to think about it and can just go to bed and sleep,” he said.

Other symptoms include “hyperarousal”, a state of permanent alert, constantly frightened and easily frightened; as well as difficulty concentrating, thinking or sleeping; difficulty remembering parts of the event and difficulty feeling positive emotions.

“People think they just have to cope like they’ve seen other people do in the past, but there are often warning signs in coping – a person becoming more irritable and angry, socially withdrawn , increasing one’s use of alcohol or hobbies or prescription drugs.This is “abnormal healing” where the trauma is left unprocessed and untreated and the person instead develops coping mechanisms unnecessary ones that put him at increased risk for more serious and difficult-to-treat mental health issues,” he said.

Stress itself can be traumatic, Dr Matsebula said, leading to the development of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, as well as physical illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes.

“In extreme cases, excessive stress levels can lead to the development of acute stress disorder, making it important to take care of your mental health and seek help when needed,” he said. -he declares.

At the first sign of symptoms, he recommends first seeing a GP, family doctor or local clinic to identify symptoms and for referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist, or to access mental health services, counseling or social work available at the workplace or educational institution.

Treatment involves psychotherapy, with the addition of medication in more severe cases.

“Seeking help after a traumatic event is essential to avoid the development of complications, unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or drug abuse and longer-term mental illness,” said he declared.

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