South Asian Emotion: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

japan earthquakeEvents such as the 8.9 earthquake in Japan, tsunami in Sri Lanka or Hurricane Katrina wreak havoc on people’s lives and can have long-lasting, devastating effects. Our bodies and minds can go into shock as we try to wrap our heads around the horror that a natural disaster caused. Such a disaster is an example of a traumatic event and a common effect of living through trauma is developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is mistakenly assumed to be reserved for war veterans when in fact it can happen to anyone of any age who:

1) experiences a traumatic event personally

2) witnesses a traumatic event (e.g. watching news coverage on TV, seeing a loved one be harmed)

3) knows someone who experienced a traumatic event (e.g. hearing about the event from someone else)

Types of traumatic events that may cause PTSD include:

accidents (e.c. car or train wrecks, plane crash)

natural disasters (e.g. tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes)

man-made tragedies (e.g. bombings)

abuse (e.g. physical abuse, sexual assault, emotional abuse or neglect)

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in South Asian Adults

Usually adults experience PTSD symptoms in three ways: intrusive memories, avoidance or emotional numbing and increased anxiety.

Intrusive memories including having flashbacks or nightmares about the traumatic event. In addition, an adult who has PTSD will also show signs of emotional numbing such as trying to avoid thinking about the event, feeling numb or hopeless about the future. Having trouble concentrating, losing closeness in relationships or experiencing memory troubles are also symptoms of emotional numbing.

sri lanka manFinally, South Asians who have experienced, witnessed or know someone who has experienced a trauma will feel emotionally aroused. They may find themselves feeling especially irritable or angry or feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt or shame that they cannot explain or shake off. Often, adults will feel easily startled or frightened or have trouble sleeping. They can compensate for the high levels of anxiety by engaging in self-destructive behavior such as drinking too much or doing drugs.

Many South Asians adults will exhibit some of the abovementioned signs as well as have several physical complaints such as stomachaches or other headaches.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in South Asian Teens

Symptoms of PTSD in South Asian adolescents is similar to those of adults. They can experience flashbacks that are triggered by images, sounds, smells or even emotions and can have persisting frightening thoughts about the traumatic event. Adolescents may avoid places, people or situations that are associated with the traumatic event. For example, a teen may avoid going to a Japanese restaurant because of the recent earthquake in Japan. In addition, they can also show signs of emotional numbing, as well as feeling emotionally arouse. Teens may be easily startled, have difficulty concentrating and may show constant worries and fears especially about death.

One difference between the adolescent PTSD symptoms versus adult symptoms is that adolescents can show regressive behaviors. They might start acting younger than their age, talking differently or requiring care from their parents like they did when they were much younger. Rarely, adolescents might experience enuresis (bed wetting).

Teens are are also likely to engage in harmful behaviors. They may experiment with alcohol or drugs as a method of coping with the high anxiety. They are also, more likely than adults, to engage in aggressive behaviors, picking fights with other students and reacting aggressively to neutral situations.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in South Asian Children

sri lanka childPTSD often looks different in young children (below the age of 12) than in older children or adults. Children may not have flashbacks about the event but may have nightmares. However, because children’s cognitive abilities are limited compared to teens and adults, they have trouble understanding and making sense of the trauma. They tend to put the events of the trauma in the wrong order, believe they were responsible or understand the event by mapping it onto a story they are already familiar. For example, they might remember the tornado occurring in the same way that it did in the Wizard of Oz and believe that to be the truth.

Children might also show PTSD in their play. Instead of repeating the trauma in their minds, they will play out the trauma repeatedly with the same ending of devastation. While children resolve most of their emotions through play, parents should become concerned if the play story does not ease the anxiety and distress in the child.

Effects of PTSD

PTSD symptoms can begin immediately after the traumatic event or even up to 6 months after the event occurred. Especially for children, symptoms can last for as long as 2 years after the event happened.

PTSD is a very treatable condition that does not need to have serious long term consequences if treated early. Without effective treatment at the proper time, South Asian children, teenagers and adults are at higher risk for depression, low self-esteem, lack of trust, aggressive behavior, substance abuse, and even self-harm.

How to Treat PTSD

PTSD requires treatment from a mental health professional who can help you work through the emotions, thoughts and memories of the trauma. Because children understand trauma so differently and are unable to clearly verbalize their experience, it is especially important that they work through the traumatic experience with a counselor or therapist.

In addition, children, teens and adults with PTSD require a strong support system to aid in their recovery. Talk to your loved one about their emotions and thoughts. Never invalidate what they are feeling (E.g. “I can’t believe you’re worried about that. Japan is so far away from here!”) but instead show compassion and empathy for their fears.


If you are concerned that you, your friend or your family member might have PTSD, contact a South Asian mental health professional for a consultation.

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