Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a set of psychiatric symptoms that can develop after a person has either experienced or witnessed a situation in their life that was traumatic. Post-traumatic stress symptoms can develop months or even years after the event, and can last for months or years, if left untreated.
TRAUMA DOESN’T DISCRIMINATE. ANYONE WHO EXPERIENCES A TRAUMATIC EVENT IS VULNERABLE TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER.
Maybe it’s because my days are filled with helping people impacted by traumatic events in their lives, but we seem to hear this word a lot. So, what is it?
TRAUMA IS A CRISIS THAT OCCURS IN US BECAUSE OF SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED TO US.
A traumatic event can harm us on multiple levels, and can happen to us physically, emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually.During the event, we may experience fear or terror, and go through an intense degree of stress; for example, a person feared they would lose their life during this event, saw someone else lose their life, or they witnessed someone being violently assaulted.
THROUGH OUR EXPERIENCE OF IT, TRAUMA CHANGES THE WAY WE SEE OURSELVES AND THE WORLD.
Traumatic events can include exposure to military combat, assault, natural or man-made disasters, actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence (a). I have also worked with post-traumatic stress symptoms associated with disabilities, and surgery-related medical traumas.
5 of the most common symptoms associated with PTSD
1. YOU CAN HAVE MEMORIES.
Memories of the event come back to you, whether you are thinking about it or not. These memories can manifest themselves while you sleep, in your dreams, as nightmares, or in the day as flashbacks while you are awake.
Flashbacks are powerful experiences where you may re-experience the trauma you have been through, as if you are experiencing the event for the first time.
2. YOU DON’T WANT TO REMEMBER.
You don’t want to remember what happened, how it made you feel, who was involved; everything and anything that could possibly remind you of the event becomes a toxic weapon that you want to avoid at all costs. This can lead you to avoid even the otherwise normal situations of life, like driving, going to work, being in public places like going to the bank or grocery, and even being around your family or friends. These symptoms are categorized as Avoidance Symptoms.
3. EVERYTHING IS A DANGER AND YOU STRUGGLE TO FOCUS.
You may change the way you do your normal everyday routines, your emotions and feelings are raw, or intense. This is called arousal or hyper-arousal and can include not being able to fall asleep, feeling constantly on-guard, easily startled, or you might find yourself getting angry more often than normal. These Arousal Symptoms may even lead to explosions of anger or panic attacks that you feel powerless to control.
4. YOU MIGHT FEEL LESS IN CONTROL OF YOUR MOOD.
Even if you are not having flashbacks or nightmares, you might feel sad, guilt, shame, and you might not be able to directly connect these emotions or thoughts to the traumatic event. You might experience thoughts of wanting to harm or kill yourself, or thoughts that your family would be better off without you. You might feel unmotivated or lack energy to even get through your day.
5. YOU MIGHT FIND YOURSELF USING DRUGS, MISUSING PRESCRIBED MEDICATIONS, OR ALCOHOL TO HELP YOU COPE.
You might use these substances to help you ‘take the edge off’ the anxiety, or sleep, to calm down, or for energy and motivation, or to help you feel less sad. This is sometimes called “self-medicating”, and often leads to an over use or abuse of these substances as your symptoms persist.
Data collected from people seeking treatment for a substance use disorder found that 50% of these individuals also meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis (b).
Aside from medications to manage the arousal symptoms mentioned above, trauma-focused psychotherapy has the strongest body of evidence in helping people work toward resolution, use their strengths, and find healing with PTSD.
“Trauma-focused” means that the treatment will be used to treat the memory and/or the meaning of the traumatic event(s).
These therapies can use different techniques to help you manage the symptoms you are experiencing, and work through the root of the problem by addressing the trauma. Some of these techniques can involve verbally processing the memories or meanings behind the traumatic event, visualizing or thinking about your experience of the event, and learning to address beliefs that are causing you to struggle in your life right now.
These are the most highly recommended trauma-focused therapies.
1. Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) came out of the research being done on anxiety disorders in the 1980’s, and is designed to intentionally confront the trauma, memories, and meanings. The goal of exposure based therapy is to reduce fear and anxiety, or other arousal symptoms (c).
2. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) was developed in the 1980’s and has its roots as a treatment for people who have survived rape or assault. The goal of CPT is to teach you to look at your existing belief system, at those areas where you are stuck in you self-view as it relates to the trauma event, and to help you examine, evaluate, and challenge these beliefs. As you go through this process, you will learn to take control of the narrative of the trauma event, and any associated meanings.
PE and CPT have shown the best outcomes for people struggling with PTSD symptoms.
Apart from the traditional treatments for PTSD, there are also alternative treatments that have been found to be effective in treating the symptoms of PTSD, this includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
It is important to understand that post-traumatic stress is a very natural psychological response to extreme stress and trauma.
You are not weak or a failure if you are experiencing these symptoms.Do your research and find the best treatment for yourself. Therapists and counselors can guide you in finding a model of therapy that will work best for you. It’s not a one-size-fits-all process. When you make a choice on the right treatment for yourself, you will get better results because you engage better in the treatment- that’s what the data tells us.
THERAPY IS NOT A QUICK FIX.
HEALING TAKES TIME.
This is going to be a difficult process, but you will have support along the way. If you are struggling with any or all of the symptoms listed here, or if you have been diagnosed with PTSD and you are not in treatment, reach out.
a. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 5th Edition (DSM-5). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
b. Brady, K. T., Back, S. E., & Coffey, S. F. (2004). Substance abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder. Current Directions in Psychological Science,13(5), 206-209.
c. Foa, E. B. (2011). Prolonged exposure therapy: Past, present, and future. Depression and Anxiety, 28(12), 1043–1047.