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Understanding PTSD and finding a path forward

March 29, 2022 - 14 min read

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What is PTSD?

Symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD

What causes PTSD?

How do you prevent developing PTSD?

PTSD complications

Trauma isn’t a one-size-fits-all phenomenon.

An individual can be exposed to different types of trauma throughout their lifetime. Some develop a mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result. PTSD can show up in different ways for different people — and that’s OK.

Whether you or a family member are experiencing PTSD, it's important to understand it. Today, we’re going to explore what PTSD is, its symptoms, and how to seek treatment and help.

What is PTSD? 

Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD, is a mental health disorder that occurs when an individual is exposed to a horrific or traumatizing event. According to the DSM, PTSD is considered an anxiety disorder. People who have PTSD often have flashbacks of the trauma and are so distressed by their triggers that they go to significant lengths to avoid them.

Symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD 

To be diagnosed with PTSD,  a person must have witnessed, experienced, or been exposed to a traumatic event. Additionally, people with PTSD usually experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Reliving the traumatic experience
  • Having event-triggered anxiety and avoidance
  • Feeling hopeless or detached
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions (anhedonia)
  • Difficulty with memory, focus, and concentration
  • Feeling easily startled or triggered
  • Irritability, frustration, or anger
  • Self-destructive behavior (excessive drinking, recreational drug use, or risk-seeking behavior)
  • Shame or survivor's guilt
  • Decision paralysis

These symptoms must continue for at least one month after the traumatic event. Symptoms must also cause significant distress for a professional to diagnose PTSD.

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What causes PTSD? 

Post-traumatic stress disorder was originally identified in combat soldiers. In these instances, the condition became known as “shell shock.” Even though the term dates back to the early 1900s, records of post-traumatic stress disorder stretch back over 3,000 years. Soon, psychiatrists began to specialize in treating the newly recognized condition. They began to realize that civilians, as well as veterans, could be affected by it. 

While the diagnosis is still closely associated with war, psychologists have recognized other types of stress and circumstances that may trigger the onset of PTSD. These risk factors include:

  • Natural disasters, like hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes
  • War, combat, invasion, or occupation
  • Global events like pandemics
  • Acts of terrorism, such as 9/11 or mass shootings
  • Witnessing or being in a serious accident
  • Violent crimes like rape, harassment, robbery, or assault
  • Childhood trauma
  • Neglect and mental, physical, verbal, sexual, or mental abuse, both in and out of the home
  • Life-threatening incidents (like a car accident)

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There is very little information as to why some people develop PTSD and some do not. It can develop at any age and is more likely to impact women than men. Individuals are more likely to develop it if they have a history of other psychological disorders or if they use drugs and alcohol. There is also some evidence that people who experience abuse as a child are more likely to develop PTSD as an adult.

Since PTSD is an anxiety disorder, it seems likely that the diathesis-stress model of mental health would be applicable. It’s how scientists refer to the underlying proclivity for a given mental health disorder, which is then triggered by the traumatic event.

How do you prevent developing PTSD? 

The most effective way to prevent PTSD would be to prevent people from experiencing trauma. With an end to sexual assault, violent crimes, life-threatening incidents, natural disasters, and acts of war, post-traumatic stress disorder would disappear. Unfortunately, as the Psychiatric Times bluntly summarizes, it’s a goal that’s “not possible to achieve.” 

The answer then is to intervene as early in the trauma process as possible. That requires a big ask from trauma survivors: to identify themselves as such and reach out for help right away. It’s a tall order.

The fact is, human life is full of challenges and adversity — but it’s full of meaning and joy, too. Like the survivors in the aftermath of 9/11, people are capable of tremendous fortitude, resilience, and bravery even amid their trauma. People who can find meaning in their challenges can often reframe the experience and avoid developing PTSD.

Working with a therapist, clinician, or mental health professional can serve as a guide. With help, individuals can work through traumatic events — from a recent experience or something painful from years ago. They can help guide people through certain activities or ways of coping with the trauma to prevent themselves from becoming “stuck” in it.

Some activities that may help process trauma and prevent PTSD are:

  • Mindfulness, particularly when sitting with difficult emotions
  • Journaling to process the events and lingering feelings
  • Connecting with others, whether they were present at the event or not
  • Attending support groups and counseling sessions
  • Working with someone to reframe and find meaning in the experience

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PTSD treatment 

Once diagnosed, PTSD should be treated by a mental health professional. The healthcare system is here to help treat symptoms of PTSD with effective treatments. They can find the right combination of treatment to help the person process the trauma and begin to move forward. 

Common treatments for PTSD often include:

Psychotherapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective for treating anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Therapists help people identify unhelpful or repetitive thoughts and replace them with positive ones. This cognitive processing therapy can help the person suffering identify negative thoughts or intrusive memories.

If PTSD is a result of abuse, Gestalt therapy can also be very helpful. The therapist may encourage the individual to “speak directly” to an empty chair or write a letter to the person who caused them pain. Gestalt therapy can be confronting, but extremely effective.

EMDR therapy

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is an evidence-based trauma treatment practice. In each session, participants relive the traumatic experiences in small doses. During so, the therapist directs their eye movements. It can help them release the physical and emotional distress associated with the painful memory.

Systematic desentization

Another evidence-based therapy approach, systematic desensitization combines relaxation with gradual exposure. Over time, it helps you to slowly overcome a fear or phobia

It’s also known as graduated exposure therapy. Gradually, you’ll work your way through levels of fear — starting with the least fearful exposure.

Medication 

In certain cases, medication can help alleviate symptoms of PTSD. It’s best to seek professional help and follow the guidance of a trained health professional.

Certain medications that can help include antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. If you’re experiencing PTSD and are seeking help, please work with your doctor.

what-is-ptsd-young-person-listening-headphones

PTSD complications 

As with most mental health conditions, individuals with PTSD might experience some health problems. PTSD is a mental health condition where symptoms can ensue. Flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety are commonly experienced by those suffering from PTSD. Here’s what you need to know: 

    • Flashbacks: In a PTSD flashback, you may feel like you’re reliving a past traumatic incident as if it is happening right now. Flashbacks can be triggered by anything that reminds you of past trauma. EMDR therapy can help reduce the frequency of flashbacks and heal from trauma. Self-care techniques — like grounding exercises — can also help you cope. Seeking professional help in addressing flashbacks is always encouraged.
    • Nightmares: Similar to flashbacks, nightmares can also occur when you’re suffering from PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, 71-96% of individuals with PTSD have nightmares. It’s common for trauma survivors to experience nightmares as a symptom of PTSD. But those suffering from nightmares must seek help from a mental health professional. 
    • Anxiety and depression: According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, symptoms of PTSD can also manifest in anxiety and depression. Depressive thoughts — like feeling helpless or having little or no motivation — are common with those who suffer from PTSD. Anxious feelings or thoughts can also persist for those with PTSD. Again, please seek professional mental health help if you’re experiencing these symptoms.

You're not alone 

If you’re living with PTSD, you don’t have to manage your condition alone. If you're a caregiver for a loved one living with PTSD, you have resources available to you.

It’s OK to seek help — especially if you’re experiencing significant negative impacts on your daily life. Healing from trauma can sometimes feel like a lifelong journey. But with the right support system, resources, education, and tools, you can heal.

There are treatment options available and experienced mental health professionals ready to help you on your healing journey. Oftentimes, the first step is to acknowledge your pain and trauma. Then, seek help.

The conversation around mental health is an ever-evolving one. Whether it’s in a conversation with your therapist or a loved one, it’s important to be open about what you’re experiencing. Caring for yourself is one of the best things you can do not only for yourself but for others, too. Reach out to your doctor or licensed health professional. You can also lean on organizations like National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for support.

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Published March 29, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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