Imagine going through something absolutely horrible like a disastrous car accident or being a witness to a natural disaster where people lost their lives. Often, such events test our fundamental belief – we are NOT that safe in this world. Due to this, it is quite normal to react with intense emotions like fear, disgust, anger, and sadness. It could also take some time to overcome these feelings. Normally, we are lucky that the human brain is quite resilient and with the support of people around us, we can generally overcome these feelings after a few weeks.
“PTSD comes from some type of traumatic event,” said Colleen Cira, PsyD., a psychologist who specializes in women and trauma. For some people though, the event is so upsetting that they struggle to let go of it and are forced to relive the intense emotions it caused almost every day. This type of difficulty is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) which simply means experiencing prolonged stress and anxiety after a traumatic event.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD symptoms can vary between people. But, they most commonly follow this pattern:
The person re-experiences the event. Re-experience is simply “reliving” the traumatic event. This can occur in the form of nightmares or through memories that “intrude” in your everyday life. This can be very distressing because not only is it a horrible thing to have to relive, but it also feels as though you have no control over this. “It’s unique in that PTSD is the only kind of psychological disorder where there is this criteria that something needs to have happened previously,” says Sandy Capaldi, PsyD.
This “re-experience” causes the brain to detect a “threat” and will react to help you survive (even though there is no actual threat present at the time). This leads to physical anxiety symptoms in the body as it enters the “fight or flight response”.
Then, the person tries to avoid things that could possibly trigger a re-experience. This can range from the site of the original event to particular smells that were present at the time of the event. This can also impact where the person goes, what they do and who they spend their time with. In addition, it can really limit them – leading to low mood and may even trigger depression.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to avoid or “dull” these re-experiences, people with PTSD also turn to substances or alcohol to cope which is sad.
Although PTSD most commonly presents what we described above, it can also manifest in children and teens. For example, young children can feel like they have gone backwards in terms of their development and may do things such as wet the bed when they are already adults just because of that. Whereas, teens may lean towards more impulsive behavior or become angry and withdrawn. If you suspect you or a child may be experiencing PTSD, please seek help through a professional counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.
What causes PTSD?
Basically, the brain learns by associating one thing with another. For example, the brain learns that drinking a cup of tea makes you feel nice and warm, therefore it learns that tea on a cold night is good. The stronger this connection, the more the brain is learning. So the more cups of tea you enjoy on cold nights, the more likely you’ll crave for tea whenever it is cold because the brain has made this connection. Unfortunately, during traumatic events, the brain will connect to a lot of information. This information is linked with the feelings a person as experienced at that time.
Since the event is so upsetting, it often takes one time to make these connections. “But mental health experts, like Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services’s Ellen Eggert, argue that the internalization of those feelings is extremely unhealthy, and can sometimes lead to severe consequences.” So in the future, every time you encounter something that was present during that event (like being at the same place or even smelling the same cologne you were wearing at the time), your brain immediately thinks “danger” as previously learned. This is what triggers the re-experience and other PTSD symptoms.
PTSD can occur to anyone following a traumatic event, experienced or witnessed, which involves serious injury, sexual violence or a threat to a persons’ safety. After such events, some people develop PTSD, but others don’t. The exact cause behind this is unknown. However, it has been found there are some risk factors which increase the chances that you might develop it. These are the history of repeated exposure to traumatic events, other pre-existing mental health concerns like anxiety or depression, and not having many friends or family to provide support after the event. It was also discovered that the more severe the event, the more likely you are to develop PTSD.
How can you manage PTSD?
This is always best done with a professional through counseling. Due to the very distressing nature of some of the symptoms of PTSD, it certainly is best to get guidance from a professional. There are several psychological and even medical treatments that a qualified professional can provide to help you. The aim of the treatment for PTSD is to “re-train” your brain to understand that even though it feels like you are in danger when you re-experience the event, you are not actually at any risk. This can be achieved through learning about the nature of anxiety, practicing relaxation techniques, and gradually exposing yourself to “triggers” to give the brain positive experiences in these environments.
Although PTSD can be a very difficult anxiety disorder to live with, treatment has shown that you can reclaim your life back. If you feel you may be experiencing PTSD, you are already one step closer to conquering it after reading this and learning about how it all works. Well done!
If you are after more information about PTSD, self-help, and treatment please check out the websites below.