For us to understand Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) we first must define what trauma is in the first place. Trauma can be described as the body’s response to distressing stimuli. This is when we experience something that is outside of our normal human experience, and it leaves us paralyzed with fear and anxiety. Our ability to function after such events is impaired.
After experiencing these distressing events, most people can get back to normal life as their body regulates itself back to its normal functioning. Unfortunately, though, there are those whose body fails to deregulate and suffer the effects of the trauma for many months or even years after the incident. If the symptoms of trauma have not reduced by the third month, this person may be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When we experience or see something that is distressing and a threat to our life or the life of others, the body releases stress hormones that help us respond to those stimuli accordingly.
These hormones get ready to prepare us for fight, flight, or freeze response, a way our own body seeks to protect itself on a primal level. This can be characterized by increased heart rate, rapid breathing, pupil dilating, heightened alertness, muscles tensing, and increased sugar levels.
Causes of PTSD.
As explained earlier, PTSD is caused by someone experiencing trauma and failing to recover from that trauma in the expected time. The question now would be, what in life can be defined or classified as traumatic?
Though each person’s response to experiences and stimuli will differ, below are some situations that have been noted to cause significant distress to the point of trauma. People who have gone through these experiences will not necessarily develop PTSD, however, they should be monitored as they are considered high risk:
- Natural disasters.
- Divorce of a parent.
- Death of a loved one.
- Car accidents.
- Abuse (sexual, physical, religious, verbal, emotional, and financial).
- Death of a pet.
- School shootings.
- Captivity or abduction.
- Robbery or any violent crime.
The above is not an exhaustive list and it’s not everyone who goes through these that will develop PTSD. Many factors also play a role in ensuring that after such events have happened, some people are more prone than others. Below are some examples:
Lack of support structures.
We heal in the community. When someone experiences a traumatic situation and does not get the much-needed support, especially in the first few days, they are at a higher risk of developing PTSD. The fact that they have no one to turn to further solidifies their belief that the world is not safe, and no one is to be trusted.
Studies suggest that some people are unfortunately genetically predisposed to developing PTSD. This is why a group of people can experience the same devastating and traumatic situations but not everyone develops PTSD.
Repeated exposure is when people are constantly living through traumatic situations. This can range from growing up in a gang-controlled neighborhood, being in a war tone country, growing up in a home with domestic violence, or growing up poor. This repeated exposure means that the individual is constantly in fight, flight, or freeze mode, which can later develop into PTSD.
Other mental health issues.
If, before the traumatic event, an individual already suffered other mental health issues like depression or anxiety, it is most likely that they will develop PTSD as the mind will struggle to cope. Other mental health issues made them more vulnerable to PTSD.
Substance abuse increases the possibility of individuals being involved in or causing traumatic situations like car accidents as their judgment is compromised. If they use alcohol and drugs to try and numb feelings of guilt after the event, these can interfere with the recovery or treatment process.
Adverse childhood experiences.
Studies have shown one in three children experience or witness at least one traumatic situation before they turn eighteen. This makes a lot of us vulnerable to PTSD should we encounter another traumatic situation. The reason behind this is that adverse childhood experiences interfere with proper brain development, especially areas responsible for stress response and emotion regulation.
This means that they can be at a higher risk to develop mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, all of which put them at a higher risk of developing PTSD should they encounter another adverse situation.
Symptoms and signs of PTSD.
When someone suffers from PTSD, they continue to produce these stress hormones even after the danger is no longer there. Their brain cannot tell the difference between a real threat and a trigger.
This means that this person will constantly be producing stress hormones that prepare the body to defend itself, only this time, there is no danger and no way of expending the excess energy. For this reason, people develop PTSD symptoms. These can vary from person to person, but common ones are as follows:
Re-Living Symptoms – These are symptoms that seem to take the victim back to the day when everything happened and experience all the same sensations, examples include:
- Night terrors or nightmares.
- Intrusive and vivid thoughts and images.
- Being triggered by familiar settings, people, or objects when they experienced trauma.
- Physical reactions like seating, trembling, feeling sick, feeling faint, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath.
Emotional Numbing Symptoms – These are symptoms characterized by avoidance. Below are some examples:
- Not talking about the traumatic event.
- Not remembering certain parts of the traumatic experience.
- Intentional blocking of memories.
- Emotional numbing, cutting off feelings.
- Isolation and withdrawal from society, friends, and family.
- Emotional numbing behavior like taking drugs, alcohol, sex, or work.
- Avoiding places and triggers of traumatic experience.
- Physical numbing of bodily sensations.
Hyper-Vigilance Symptoms – These are symptoms that render the person to be alert all the time, fearing danger and not feeling safe. Below are some examples:
- Constantly tense and on edge.
- Easily startled by loud noises and sudden movements.
- Short-tempered, accompanied by an angry outburst.
- High levels of irritability.
- Looking for exits in any building they go into.
- High levels of alertness.
- Failure to relax.
Cognitive and Mood Symptoms – Trauma impacts our emotional makeup and our ability to think and function cognitively. Below are some ways in which our brain and mood are impacted:
- Inability to concentrate.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Heightened levels of pessimism about oneself, others, and the world.
- Distorted memories about the traumatic experience.
- Persistent feelings of shame, guilt, fear, anger, and blame.
- Inability to find joy and pleasure in life, sometimes leading to suicidal thoughts.
The above might be a lot to digest. It however does not mean that there is no hope for those suffering from PTSD. Over the years, treatments have been developed that combat the effects of trauma and treat PTSD.
The choice of treatment will depend on a lot of factors that will be determined by the patient’s symptoms and the recommendations of the mental health practitioner. Treatment can be administered through psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.
Types of psychotherapy for PTSD.
- Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
- Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR).
- Prolonged Exposure.
Types of Medication
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs).
- Prazosin (for the treatment of nightmares).
Apart from therapy and medication, individuals can make certain lifestyle changes to help with their treatment. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Eating healthy.
- Regular exercise.
- Reducing or stopping alcohol intake.
- Joining a church or a support group for love, encouragement, and understanding.
- Mindfulness exercises like praying, meditation, journaling, and retreats.
There is hope.
PTSD can be hard to live with. Having gone through a traumatic experience is hard enough, but suffering as a result of it can be overwhelming. There is hope.
If any of the above resonates with you or someone you know, please reach out to our offices. We have therapists trained to deal specifically with PTSD. They will work with you to create a treatment plan that is suitable for your situation and offer support and tools for your journey. There is hope, you do not have to walk alone.
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