It is PTSD awareness month, so in that light, this blog is all about PTSD. We’ll talk about what PTSD is, why some people develop PTSD while others do not, what symptoms you may notice in yourself, a friend or family member who may be suffering from the effects of PTSD, and what treatments are available to reduce the symptoms and help you live a productive life.
What is traumatic stress? Traumatic stress is an event that a person goes through, witnesses first hand, or learns about happening to a close family or friend in which their body goes into the fight/flight mode. When the brain identifies an event as life threatening, it sends out the alarm, putting cortisol (the stress hormone) or adrenaline into the body giving it the oxygen and energy it needs to survive that moment. In doing so, it turns off all bodily functions that are not needed for survival including logical thinking. Potentially traumatic events are very common. An estimated 70% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. On the other hand, only about 7%-8% go on to develop PTSD.
What makes an event potentially traumatic varies among cultures and throughout history. Years ago it was commonplace to know kids who were hit with a belt or spoon growing up. It was considered “ok” to do this years ago and most people grew up without developing PTSD. Today, when a child is hit with a belt or spoon, it is considered “abuse,” the child is told this is not ok, and sometimes they go on to develop PTSD symptoms. Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning hitting a child, but I am stressing that what a person considers to be culturally “normal” has an impact on their reaction and thus on their post-reactions. As mentioned before, trauma is the body’s response to the event. So if the person does not go into fight/flight, they won’t develop post traumatic stress disorder.
Why do some people develop PTSD and others do not? There are several parts to this question. 1. Personal factors (did the person stay calm during and after the event, do they have several potentially traumatic experiences or only one, family history of mental health, and researchers have pinpointed a gene that may be a factor in the development of PTSD! Also gender and socioeconomic status seem to make a difference) 2. The potentially traumatic event itself (the greater the threat of life to you personally, as well as the greater the feelings of helplessness and uncontrollability of the situation seem to make a difference in the development of PTSD). 3. Recovery environment (social support is a huge factor shown through research of people displaced by the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 as well as several other large scale disasters in the development or non-development of PTSD).
How do I know if a friend or family member may have PTSD? First, if after reading the statements below, you think your friend or family member may have PTSD, don’t diagnose them yourself. Tell them that it seems like the event is really bothering them, they are not “sick” or “weak” to have these “symptoms” and there is help to make the symptoms less bothersome.
– They are having a hard time not thinking about it
They could be having nightmares
They could be remembering it in vivid detail during the day
They could have thoughts about it that don’t stop
– They are doing everything in their power NOT to think about it
They could be avoiding people, places, and things that remind them of the event
They may avoid talking about it; changing the subject
They may avoid feelings that were similar to the ones they had at the time of the event
– Their mood may be different
They may not do things they once enjoyed
They may be putting blame where it doesn’t belong
They may be more irritable/angry/snappy
You may notice they seem less happy or more detached from others – not wanting to be around others or not seeming to connect to others
They may be more “hyperalert” or on guard – noticing everything around them
They may display more reckless behavior
They may not be able to concentrate as well
Their sleeping patterns may change
What help is out there for people suffering from the effects of post traumatic stress? Medication and psychotherapy are both effective modalities of reducing the long-term effects. Medication reduces the symptoms, but it is like throwing an anti-inflammatory medication at a swollen joint not knowing what the underlying cause is. The medication may work temporarily, but the joint will continue to be swollen until the underlying issue is taken care of. Medication for PTSD works similarily, but it is only a bandaid to help with the unmanageable symptoms. Psychotherapy is proven to be very effective in reducing the effects of post traumatic stress. There are several forms of therapy that are researched-backed for the efficacy in reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps you work with your thoughts and cognitions to feel safe in the present moment. Prolonged Exposure (PE) is a form of exposure where you confront what you’ve been avoiding (emotions, places, etc) until it is no longer distressing. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is similar to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but you challenge your thoughts about the trauma until you put it in perspective and change the way you feel about it. Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) helps you develop coping skills to handle the stress and responses. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) reprocesses old memories, feelings, negative thoughts about yourself, and body memories thus putting the old memories in their place in history. It is important to talk with your therapist about the different options and which may be best for you. As I mentioned, they are all research-backed for their efficacy in reducing the symptoms.
PTSD is real and nothing to be ashamed of. It is also very treatable. If you or a loved one is suffering from the effects of PTSD, why suffer any longer? June is PTSD awareness month and I hope this blog shed some light on the reality of PTSD. If we work together, we will solve any problem. Call me or email me if you need help finding the right therapist for you. Meg@megberrylcsw.com or 860-501-9767 or 941-462-4807.