Experiencing a traumatic event is one of the most unpleasant things anyone can go through. However, for many, the after-effects of the experience, PTSD, are what damages the most.
At the time, being involved in a distressing situation can feel surreal and often incredibly frightful, but what many don’t realise is that the emotions can stay with you long after the event is over.
Definition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
The NHS defines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events, and describes it as someone who often relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability, and guilt.
It isn’t unusual to think ‘bad things would never happen to me’ or ‘the chances of something traumatic happening are very slim’.
However, a traumatic event doesn’t have to be something so wildly extreme as, let’s say, a shark attack.
PTSD can also occur in individuals who have experienced much milder situations that have affected them personally (it is important to state that PTSD isn’t usually related to situations that are simply upsetting, such as divorce, job loss or failing exams).
Regardless of the severity of the event, but the end result is still the same – we have to relive the event over and over again.
It can often be difficult to recognise Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and in many cases it takes an outsider, such as a family member or close friend, to realise what is going on.
Whether it is you or a loved one who you are concerned about, during this article I will help you to recognise PTSD and guide you in managing it.
Causes of PTSD
It is estimated that 1 in 3 that are involved in a traumatic event will experience PTSD. Although it isn’t fully understood why some people develop the condition while others don’t, if you’ve had depression or anxiety in the past, you’re more susceptible to developing Post traumatic stress Disorder after a traumatic event.
Below are the common causes of PTSD:
- Road Accidents
- Personal Assault
- Sexual Abuse or Violence
- Severe Neglect
- Witnessing a Death
- Military Combat
- Terror Attack
- Natural Disaster
Reliving the Event
This can include flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, intense stress at real or symbolic reminders, and physical sensations such as pain, sweating nausea or trembling.
Feeling on Edge
This can include panicking, being easily upset, hypervigilance, disturbed sleep, irritability, being jumpy, recklessness and finding it hard to concentrate.
Avoiding Feelings or Memories
This includes keeping busy, avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, feeling emotionally numb, using alcohol to avoid memories
Struggling with Beliefs and Relationships
This includes feeling like you can’t trust anyone, nowhere is safe, nobody understands, blaming yourself and feeling overwhelmed.
For more guidance on helping to recognise PTSD, read this article by mental health organisation MIND Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) .
Those More Susceptible to PTSD
Researchers are yet to determine why certain individuals suffer and others don’t, but there have been a few suggestions as to why people with particular traits are more susceptible.
Anxiety and depression are often linked with PTSD, and it is believed that if someone with a mental health issue experiences a traumatic event they are more likely to develop PTSD than someone with no history of anxiety or depression.
Similarly, there may also be a genetic factor involved in PTSD. For example, having a parent with a mental health problem is thought to increase your chances of developing the condition.
Understanding the Development of PTSD
A number of possible reasons as to why PTSD develops have been suggested by the NHS:
One suggestion is that the symptoms of PTSD are the result of an instinctive mechanism intended to help you survive further traumatic experiences.
For example, the flashbacks many people with PTSD experience may force you to think about the event in detail so you’re better prepared if it happens again. The feeling of being “on edge” (hyperarousal) may develop to help you react quickly in another crisis. However, while these responses may be intended to help you survive, they’re actually very unhelpful in reality because you can’t process and move on from the traumatic experience.
High adrenaline levels
Normally, when in danger, the body produces stress hormones such as adrenaline to trigger a reaction in the body. This reaction, often known as the “fight or flight” reaction, helps to deaden the senses and dull pain.
People with PTSD have been found to continue to produce high amounts of fight or flight hormones even when there’s no danger. It’s thought this may be responsible for the numbed emotions and hyperarousal experienced by some people with PTSD.
Changes in the brain
In people with PTSD, parts of the brain involved in emotional processing appear different in brain scans. One part of the brain responsible for memory and emotions is known as the hippocampus.
In people with PTSD, the hippocampus appears smaller in size. It’s thought that changes in this part of the brain may be related to fear and anxiety, memory problems and flashbacks. The malfunctioning hippocampus may prevent flashbacks and nightmares from being properly processed, so the anxiety they generate doesn’t reduce over time
Treatment and Therapy
“Trauma-focused” means that the treatment focuses on the memory of the traumatic event or its meaning. These treatments use different techniques to help you process your traumatic experience. Some involve visualizing, talking, or thinking about the traumatic memory. Others focus on changing unhelpful beliefs about the trauma. It isn’t a quick fix, however. The therapy usually takes a series of months and are often available through local mental-health therapy practices.
What you can expect from this type of therapy:
Prolonged Exposure: this will help you regain control by facing up to negative feelings that are being brushed to the side.
Early on in the treatment, your therapist will teach you breathing techniques to ease your anxiety when you think about what happened. Later, you’ll make a list of the things you’ve been avoiding and learn how to face them, one by one
Cognitive Processing Therapy: CPT is a 12-week course of treatment, with weekly sessions of 60-90 minutes. This teaches you to reframe negative thoughts. It will often include written practices to help you become more familiar with the negative memories and recognising how to deal with them and accept them.
Brief Eclectic Psychotherapy: practicing relaxation skills and reframing negative thoughts. Similar to cognitive processing, it can often involve writing skills such as writing a letter about the traumatic event and hold a farewell ritual to leave trauma in the past.
Medication: Taking medication for mental health is a gloomy area that many people are unsure about, however, taking medication to reduce the effects of PTSD are widely effective and successful.
You and your doctor can work together to figure out the best medication, with the fewest side effects, for your symptoms and situation. You may see an improvement in your mood and other symptoms within a few weeks. Medication often includes anti-depressants, anxiety medication and prazosin.
It is important to establish that PSTD can be overcome with the right therapy and treatment.
Experiencing an unpleasant event is a process that nobody should have to go through, never mind having to relive it over and over again. Therefore, recognising the disorder and seeking help is the first step in combating the condition.
Remember, it takes a strong person to experience something like this but an even stronger person to get help. Take it day by day, one step at a time.