PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health disorder that is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.
What causes PTSD?
Anyone can develop PTSD. Any person at any age can go through or witness something traumatic. It is important to note that a lot of what makes a traumatic experience is the person’s perception or interpretation of the event that occurred. We cannot deem something traumatic or not for a person. It is also important to acknowledge that PTSD is not a choice and absolutely does not make a person weak. Any life-threatening or terrifying experience can lead to PTSD. These include but are not limited to: combat, rape, abuse in all its forms, a natural disaster, a serious accident, receiving a life-threatening diagnosis or the death of a loved one. It can also occur because of repeated exposure to smaller events or traumas. Any situation that triggers fear, shock, horror, or helplessness can lead to PTSD.
What does PTSD feel like?
Although symptoms typically appear within three months after the event; they can be delayed and only appear years after. Feelings or experiences could be ignored, bottled-up or resisted for the sake of safety and sanity at the time. Each person’s experience of PTSD is unique to them. You might have experienced a similar type of trauma to someone else yet be affected in different ways. Symptoms present differently for people but may include some or all (or even none) of the following: unwanted and recurring flashbacks, avoidance of people and places that trigger memories, nightmares, insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks, hypervigilance, intrusive images, sweating, nausea, gastrointestinal issues, easily angered or distressed, finding it hard to concentrate, avoiding thoughts and feelings by ‘keeping busy’, feeling numb and detached and using drugs and alcohol to ‘numb’ the pain and memory.
Symptoms may be classified in four different categories: Intrusion (triggers, flashbacks, nightmares), Avoidance (reminders, people, places), Changes in Mood (negative thought patterns and feelings) and Changes in Reactivity (constantly fearing the worst and frightened easily).
PTSD can make the world a scary place.
“My behaviour changed and became erratic. I would alternate from wanting to shut myself away and not see or talk to anyone to going out to parties in the middle of the week and staying out late.”
“I was also deeply depressed and experiencing huge amounts of anxiety, refusing to go anywhere alone or go near any men that I didn’t know… I would lock my bedroom windows and barricade my bedroom door at night.”
“I feel like I’m straddling a timeline where the past is pulling me in one direction and the present another. I see flashes of images and noises burst through, fear comes out of nowhere. My heart races, my breathing is loud and I no longer know where I am.”
“I thought I was coping quite well to start with. Then a few weeks after the event, I began experiencing unpleasant physical symptoms, similar to those of a heart attack: chest pain, tightness and dizzy spells so severe that I thought I would pass out.”
“The lack of sleep and the sense of never being at peace are exhausting.”
“My heart was constantly racing and I felt permanently dizzy. I couldn’t leave the house and became afraid of going to sleep as I was convinced I was going to die.”
Although the mental and emotional effects of PTSD can be debilitating, the physical effects are also overwhelming. According to Mind, ‘this could be because when we feel stressed emotionally, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. This is the body’s automatic way of preparing to respond to a threat, sometimes called the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. Studies have shown that someone with PTSD will continue producing these hormones when they’re no longer in danger, which is thought to explain some symptoms such as extreme alertness and being easily startled.’
These same responses may also occur every time the person is ‘triggered’ by a thought, reminder, or memory. When people are reminded of their trauma by internal or external cues, their fears are re-activated, and it can feel like they are living through the trauma all over again. The world can suddenly feel like a very scary place and they are in constant alert mode, waiting for something to happen. This starts to affect their everyday life, making it impossible to go to work, school, socialize or even care for themselves.
The road to recovery.
Many people experience symptoms after a traumatic event, such as crying, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating, but this is not necessarily PTSD. Prompt treatment with a qualified professional can help prevent the symptoms from getting worse. Some studies suggest that early intervention with people who had a trauma may prevent it altogether. If symptoms persist for more than a month, prevent a person from living their day-to-day life or they consider harming themselves, a PTSD diagnosis and treatment plan may be considered.
Treatment usually involves psychotherapy and counselling, medication, or a combination.
The goal is to reduce the emotional, mental and physical symptoms, to improve daily functioning, and to help the person better manage their response to the event that triggered the disorder.
There is a lot one can do to help themselves too. The main step is to accept that you have experienced something huge and it is having a great impact on your life. Once you have acknowledged this, it will be easier to put self-help tips in place. It is equally important to offer yourself huge amounts of grace- healing is not linear and does not happen overnight. It is an ongoing process and takes time. To heal from the trauma does not mean to dismiss the event/s or the effect thereof; it is to learn to live a full life even though the trauma occurred. It is to be less controlled by the symptoms and more confident in your living. Sharing your experience with others (especially those that have suffered something similar) is really helpful in feeling less alone. Exercise and breathing techniques (mindfulness or meditation), spending time in nature and doing things you enjoy are all great ways to feel more at peace. Healing takes energy, but it is worth all the effort.
Find your healing power and path.
Trauma is such a personal journey and may look different for everyone. This is why the healing process is such a personal one too: what may work for one won’t necessarily work for another. It’s about finding the right path: your path! The great part is that you have the power to create one with the help and guidance of a friend or professional, if you feel a little lost. If you know someone with PTSD, validate their trauma, feelings and meet them with love and compassion; help them to feel a little less alone and scared. Allow people to express their feelings and fears without shame and discrimination.
Take our questionnaire if you feel you may be presenting symptoms of PTSD