If you are living with painful memories from a traumatic experience, you might be wondering if you are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
Feeling scared during and after traumatic situations is natural as fear spurs your body’s “fight or flight” response to protect you from harm. However, if you do not recover from these reactions after your trauma and you experience ongoing stress or fear even when you are not in danger, you might be suffering from PTSD.
Let’s take a closer look at what this psychiatric disorder entails and how you can address it.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychiatric disorder that can occur after you’ve experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Although it is most commonly associated with combat veterans, there is a broad range of traumatic events that can trigger it, including a serious accident, rape, natural disaster, terrorist act, war, medical event, or other traumatic event.
It can also occur in those who have been threatened with serious injury, death, abuse, or sexual violence. People who are repeatedly exposed to upsetting details of trauma, such as police officers working on child abuse cases, might also suffer.
Although it can feel very isolating, the American Psychiatric Association reports that PTSD affects roughly 3.5% of American adults each year, and one out of every 11 people will be diagnosed with it at some point in their lifetime. Women are particularly at risk, being twice as likely as men to suffer from the disorder.
What are PTSD symptoms?
For a formal diagnosis of PTSD, a person must have experienced physical and emotional symptoms in the following categories for at least a month. Keep in mind, however, that even if you don’t meet the official definition of PTSD, you should still seek help to deal with upsetting feelings and memories if you have any of these symptoms.
Re-experiencing symptoms (1 or more of the following):
- Vivid and unpleasant memories of the traumatic event
- Frequent bad dreams about the event
- Frightening thoughts
- Intense physical or mental distress when you think about the situation
- PTSD flashbacks involve reliving the trauma repeatedly. This may be accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating and a racing heartbeat.
Any of these symptoms may be triggered by objects, words or situations that remind you of the event.
Avoidance symptoms (1 or more of the following):
- Avoiding feelings or thoughts that are related to the traumatic experience
- Actively staying away from events, objects or places that remind you of the traumatic event
- Changing your routine after a trauma (such as not going in cars after a serious car accident)
Arousal and reactivity symptoms (2 or more of the following):
- Having angry outbursts
- Feeling tense or irritable
- Sleeping troubles
- Feeling on edge
- Being startled easily
These symptoms tend to be constant rather than triggered by things that remind you of your trauma. In addition, these symptoms can make you feel incredibly angry and stressed and may interfere with daily tasks such as concentrating, eating, or sleeping.
Cognition and mood symptoms (2 or more of the following):
- A loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Negative thoughts about yourself
- Difficulty remembering key aspects of the traumatic experience
- A negative view of the world at large
- Feelings like blame or guilt
These symptoms can be caused by the traumatic event itself, or they can get worse following trauma in people who already felt this way to some extent. The symptoms often cause people to feel detached or alienated from family members.
What causes PTSD?
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. In fact, most people will not. This is an area of ongoing research, but one study suggests it may be related to your brain’s composition or stress hormone levels; your ability to manage stress might also play a role.
In addition, certain factors can raise your risk of PTSD, such as having a mental health issue like depression, having family members with PTSD, a lack of support, and a job that raises your exposure to traumatic events.
Although PTSD can make it difficult to function, there is some good news: it can be treated with therapy, medication, or both.
First, it’s important to note that if an ongoing trauma is at the heart of your PTSD, like spousal abuse, you need to address both of these problems in order to make progress. Similarly, if you are also dealing with substance abuse, depression, or panic disorder, this should be treated in conjunction with therapy for PTSD.
Self-help for PTSD
There are a few things you can do to help yourself get through this time while you are seeking other treatment. Here are some tips:
- Try to do some mild exercise or other physical activity to alleviate stress
- Eat a balanced diet
- Be kind to yourself and set realistic goals for healing – it’s a gradual process.
- Spend time strengthening your relationships with other people, and try to find a trusted person you can confide in. Tell them about things that may trigger your symptoms as well.
- Determine what situations, people and places comfort you, and seek them out.
Medication for PTSD
Antidepressants may be used to help control symptoms of PTSD in some people. They are particularly suited to addressing feelings of sadness, anxiety, mental numbness, anger or worry. Some people might also seek medications that help with specific PTSD symptoms like trouble sleeping. However, these should be thought of as short-term forms of relief as you work to address your emotions.
Therapy for PTSD
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a highly effective approach to PTSD. One of the most helpful types of therapy for patients with PTSD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT.
This may include exposure therapy that helps you learn to control your fear. It involves exposure to your trauma in a safe environment to help you cope with your feelings. Of course, you do not have to go through the trauma again in a literal sense; you might use writing or imagining to learn how to cope.
Another aspect of CBT is cognitive restructuring. This can help you to make sense of your bad memories and address issues like feeling shame or guilt about something that was not your fault. In these cases, therapists can help you to view what happened in a more realistic way.
Here’s how talk therapy can help you overcome PTSD:
- It can help you learn skills for relaxing and controlling anger.
- It allows you to safely discuss your trauma and the effects it is having on you.
- It can help you deal with your feelings about the event.
- A therapist can help you ensure you react productively to your PTSD symptoms.
Another type of therapy that can be helpful for PTSD is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. This entails paying attention to specific back-and-forth movements or sounds while recalling the upsetting memory until a shift takes place in how you experience the memory. Although it can be very effective, scientists are not fully sure how it works.
What Type of Therapy is Best for PTSD?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to PTSD, as each person’s experience is different and highly personal. Some people find that group therapy is helpful, particularly if it’s done with others who went through the same experience, while others prefer the more personal nature of one-on-one therapy.
Online therapy can be particularly valuable for PTSD as some sufferers are overwhelmed by the idea of taking transportation or even leaving the house. Studies have shown that internet-based treatment for PTSD can reduce distress significantly, and it presents the opportunity to form a positive and stable relationship with your therapist that can serve you well as you overcome your trauma.
The Bottom Line
There’s no reason you have to live with painful memories and a constant feeling of danger. With some good self-care and help from a therapist online or in person, you can learn coping skills that will help you move on from your trauma and feel safe again.