Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that can develop following a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless. Most people associate PTSD with battle-scarred soldiers – and military combat is the most common cause in men – but any overwhelming life experience can trigger PTSD, especially if the event is perceived as unpredictable and uncontrollable ( hijacking or robbery in our south African context being the most common).

Traumatic events that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include:

  • War
  • Rape
  • Natural disasters
  • A car or plane crash
  • Hijacking
  • Robbery and violent assault
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Medical procedures (especially in kids)

The traumatic events that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder are usually so overwhelming and frightening that they would upset anyone. When your sense of safety and trust are shattered, it’s normal to feel crazy, disconnected, or numb – and most people do. The only difference between people who go on to develop PTSD and those who don’t is how they cope with the trauma.

After a traumatic experience, the mind and the body are in shock. But as you make sense of what happened and process your emotions, you come out of it. With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, you remain in psychological shock. Your memory of what happened and your feelings about it are disconnected. In order to move on, it’s important to face and feel your memories and emotions.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Following a traumatic event, almost everyone experiences at least some of the symptoms of PTSD. It’s very common to have bad dreams, feel fearful or numb, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. But for most people, these symptoms are short-lived. They may last for several days or even weeks, but they gradually lift.

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, the symptoms don’t decrease. You don’t feel a little better each day. In fact, you may start to feel worse. But PTSD doesn’t always develop in the hours or days following a traumatic event, although this is most common. For some people, the symptoms of PTSD take weeks, months, or even years to develop.

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time. Sometimes symptoms appear seemingly out of the blue. At other times, they are triggered by something that reminds you of the original traumatic event, such as a noise, an image, certain words, or a smell. While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are three main types of symptoms, as listed below.

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event

  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)

  • Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)

  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma

  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

PTSD symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma

  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma

  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general

  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb

  • Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

PTSD symptoms of increased arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

  • Irritability or outbursts of anger

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)

  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled

Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Anger and irritability

  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame

  • Substance abuse

  • Depression and hopelessness

  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings

  • Feeling alienated and alone

  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal

  • Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain

Getting help for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

If you suspect that you or a loved one has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s important to seek help right away. The sooner PTSD is confronted, the easier it is to overcome. If you’re reluctant to seek help, keep in mind that PTSD is not a sign of weakness, and the only way to overcome it is to confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past. This process is much easier with the guidance and support of an experienced therapist or doctor.

It’s only natural to want to avoid painful memories and feelings.

But if you try to numb yourself and push your memories away, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will only get worse.

You can’t escape your emotions completely – they emerge under stress or whenever you let down your guard – and trying to do so is exhausting.

The avoidance will ultimately harm your relationships, your ability to function, and the quality of your life.

Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) relieves symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. Rather than avoiding the trauma and any reminder of it, you’ll be encouraged in treatment to recall and process the emotions and sensations you felt during the original event. In addition to offering an outlet for emotions you’ve been bottling up, treatment for PTSD will also help restore your sense of control and reduce the powerful hold the memory of the trauma has on your life.

Types of treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD and trauma involves carefully and gradually “exposing” yourself to thoughts, feelings, and situations that remind you of the trauma. Therapy also involves identifying upsetting thoughts about the traumatic event–particularly thoughts that are distorted and irrational—and replacing them with more balanced picture.

  • Family therapy. Since PTSD affects both you and those close to you, family therapy can be especially productive. Family therapy can help your loved ones understand what you’re going through. It can also help everyone in the family communicate better and work through relationship problems.

  • Medication. Medication is sometimes prescribed to people with PTSD to relieve secondary symptoms of depression or anxiety, but it does not treat the causes of PTSD.

Tips for handling PTSD

Challenge your sense of helplessness

Overcoming your sense of helplessness is key to overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times. Taking positive action directly challenges the sense of helplessness that contributes to trauma.

Helping a loved one with PTSD

  • Be patient and understanding. Getting better takes time, even when a person is committed to treatment for PTSD. Be patient with the pace of recovery and offer a sympathetic ear. A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so avoid the temptation to tell your loved one to stop rehashing the past and move on.

  • Try to anticipate and prepare for PTSD triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the trauma; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to offer your support and help your loved one calm down.

  • Don’t take the symptoms of PTSD personally. Common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include emotional numbness, anger, and withdrawal. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, or closed off, remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.

  • Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. It is very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their traumatic experiences. For some, it can even make things worse. Never try to force your loved one to open up. Let the person know, however, that you’re there when and if he or she wants to talk.

Links and Resources

Trauma Support

Trauma Information

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