Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is most commonly associated with military combat veterans, but it can affect anyone who has gone through a life-threatening traumatic event. People with PTSD generally have a difficult time trying to return to a normal life after they have gone through something traumatic, and they also have a hard time connecting, or reconnecting, to other people.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can occur not only in the people who actually experience a traumatic event, but also in people who witness the event or in those who are responsible for “cleaning up” after the fact, such as emergency medical personnel and law enforcement officers.
Why PTSD Occurs
When PTSD occurs in people, it is in response to a terrifying situation that simply overwhelms a person emotionally. As a general rule, the individual ways that people are able to cope with what they have gone through determines whether or not they will develop PTSD.
When people experience a traumatic event, it causes both the mind and body to go into a state of shock. People who are able to process their emotions and make some sense of what happened will eventually come out of this state of shock and be able to get on with their lives. People who are not able to process the traumatic events remain in psychological shock and may eventually develop PTSD.
There are a variety of traumatic events that can lead to the development of PTSD:
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Plane or car crash
- Natural disasters
- Medical procedures (usually in children)
Symptoms of PTSD
After people have experienced some type of traumatic event, it is quite common for them to experience at least some of the symptoms that are most commonly associated with PTSD, even if they do not actually go on to develop this disorder.
Following such an event, most people have bad dreams or they find themselves feeling unusually afraid. In a normal situation, these symptoms will only last for a few days or weeks, and then they will disappear, allowing the person to get back to their normal way of life.
The unusual thing about PTSD is that it does not necessarily manifest in the days or weeks immediately following a traumatic event. In many cases, PTSD does not develop for several months or even years after the event has occurred.
In some people, the symptoms of this disorder appear quite suddenly, and with little or no warning. In others, symptoms may start to appear on a gradual, periodic basis before developing into a full-blown case of PTSD.
There are three primary classifications of symptoms that are indicative of PTSD: re-experiencing the traumatic event, increased arousal, and avoidance and emotional numbing.
Symptoms of re-experiencing the traumatic event:
- Intense feelings of distress or anxiety
- Upsetting memories of the event
- Physical reactions to memories of the event that are usually intense in nature, and may include nausea, sweating, racing heart, muscle tension or rapid breathing
Symptoms of increased arousal:
- Irritability or irrational anger
- Easily startled or feeling jumpy
- Lack of concentration
Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing:
- Feeling detached and/or emotionally numb
- Avoiding people, places or things that remind you of the traumatic event
- Lack of interest in life or social activities
- Unable to remember certain events from the traumatic episode
In addition to the symptoms listed above, there are other symptoms that are characteristic of PTSD:
- Substance abuse
- Stomach problems
- Chest pain
- Feelings of guilt or shame
- Suicidal thoughts
A large part of the treatment process for PTSD is for people to start to relive the trauma they experienced in order to be able to really deal with it. Recalling the events and emotions that were experienced at the time helps people to process their emotions, which ultimately helps to promote the healing process.
There are four basic types of treatment that are recommended for people with PTSD:
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) incorporates different types of left-right stimulation along with traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. Medical professionals believe that eye movements can help to unfreeze the processing system in the brain. This process becomes interrupted whenever we go through an extremely upsetting or traumatic event, which leaves us with frozen emotional fragments rather than a complete, cohesive memory. EMDR helps to bring the emotional fragments together so that the complete memory, or memories, can be processed and dealt with.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that focuses on gradually making people directly address and deal with their painful thoughts, memories and feelings. Over time, cognitive behavioral therapy helps to put the big picture into perspective, and allows people to process their emotions so that they can move past the painful events of the past.
- While there are no medications that will help to alleviate the symptoms associated with PTSD, medications may be prescribed to those individuals who are also suffering from anxiety or depression.
- For people who are going through the emotional ups and downs of PTSD, it is often quite helpful for their family members to also go through therapy. Family therapy sessions can help family members to gain a better understanding of what the PTSD sufferer is going through, which will provide them with the knowledge and ability to be more supportive throughout the treatment process.
For people with PTSD, it can also be helpful to find a support group to become actively involved in. The sharing of different traumatic experiences can help sufferers to deal with their own emotions in a more positive way, and it also helps them to feel less isolated.