In today’s world, many of us have experienced events that are deeply troubling. These include car accidents, physical assault, gruesome deaths, difficult childhoods, witnessing violence, working in fields where tragic things occur, etc. None of these experiences in themselves will result in post-traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, many events in life can be extremely upsetting but may not lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. For some, however, such events stay with the individual and change their ability to cope significantly.
Let’s begin with a bit of discussion about the difference between a difficult event and a traumatic one. I like to refer to difficult events as small-t traumas. These are events that can upset us for days, weeks, and even months. They take time to adjust to and with time and social support the individual is eventually able to function as well as they did prior to the difficult event. Capital-T traumas tend to be events that impact the psyche in ways that prevent us from returning to our previous ability to function. These tend to be events that are outside of the realm of normal human experience, i.e., they are statistically unlikely. Therefore, it is difficult for the sufferer to find social support as most people cannot identify with the events that have occurred. In addition, traumatic events tend to happen quite suddenly and therefore overwhelm the brain in terms of its ability to process what has occurred. There is a great deal of science that explains this but it is beyond the scope of this blog. Capital-T traumas can result in full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder.
How do I know when I need to get help for PTSD?
How does one know if they have post-traumatic stress disorder and should, therefore, seek help? There are several factors that experts agree are consistent with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The first of these is physical symptoms. Following a traumatic event, it is not uncommon for the sufferer to report extreme fatigue, dizziness, headaches, as well as a host of gastrointestinal difficulties. In addition, the event itself may have left the individual with chronic pain. For example, motor vehicle accidents often result in observable injuries that are painful. If these symptoms persist beyond the length of time in which healing should occur, this may be a symptom of PTSD.
Secondly, those with post-traumatic stress disorder typically report nightmares about the traumatic event and other flashbacks. Flashbacks sometimes called triggers, occur when something relatively small reminds the sufferer of the entire traumatic event and the sufferer experiences a very high level of distress. An example of this might be smelling alcohol following an event in which an assailant was intoxicated or smelled like alcohol. The sound of sirens can also be a common trigger.
In addition, PTSD sufferers tend to exhibit a specific form of anxiety in which they begin to avoid situations that might remind them of the traumatic experience. This is done so that the sufferer can avoid feeling the distress and pain that they felt during the initial event. For example, if the traumatic event involved harm coming to a child, the sufferer may begin to avoid settings where there are children. These avoidances can make it very hard to resume normal life as some of them are quite common settings and or objects.
The next symptom that commonly occurs with PTSD is social withdrawal. This can take the form of an otherwise friendly person who begins to decline invitations that they would normally attend. The sufferer may also begin to spend time alone and become very quiet even within their own family. Added to this, the sufferer may begin to use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to withdraw from the feelings and memories associated with the trauma. They may also begin to engage in risky and seemingly wild activities such as driving erratically, walking alone in high-risk situations, etc., as a means of distracting themselves from the traumatic memory.
Repression or trying to forget the event is another symptom of PTSD. This can take the form of the sufferer destroying anything that might remind him or her of the traumatic event. It can even go so far as to result in a memory loss wherein the sufferer does not have a conscious memory of the traumatic experience.
Folks with post-traumatic stress disorder often become emotionally numb. Their loved ones may begin to notice a difference in that the sufferer appears to have no feelings. Sufferers themselves often describe feeling numb. This is the mind’s way of protecting us from becoming overwhelmed when something horrible has occurred.
Another common symptom of PTSD is what is called hyperarousal. Basically, this means that the individual becomes very jumpy and is easily startled. They may be startled by a sound that was present during the initial event such as a loud banging sound or may as easily startled by anything that they consider sudden. Individuals with PTSD often appear to be on edge as if they are waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
With all of the triggers, nightmares, hyperarousal, attempts to avoid being reminded of the traumatic event, and physical discomfort that may be present, it is no wonder that trauma survivors are commonly irritable. Irritability is the final factor that is typically present in a person with PTSD.
Is there hope for me or my loved one if PTSD is involved?
If the above describes yourself or someone you love, there is much reason for hope. PTSD is not a lifelong condition. However, it can be life-threatening if it is not addressed because the suffering is so intense. Ways of addressing PTSD include talking about it with someone trusted and who can really listen. Formal help in the form of counselling is recommended. It is important to identify and work with a therapist who has expertise in the assessment and treatment of PTSD. Such a therapist is likely to use methods such as progressive relaxation, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), talk therapy, art therapy, or neurofeedback, and may work in concert with the sufferer’s physician or other members of a healing team.
It is possible to return to living a full and happy life just like before the trauma. While the traumatic event cannot be forgotten, it does not have to define or debilitate a person who has survived a terrible experience. With the right help, it is possible to learn from even life’s most terrible experiences rather than be controlled by them.
Kathryn Priest-Peries is our newest Associate at Alongside You, starting in January. She has lived experience with, and a high level of expertise in working with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you identify with this article and would like to meet with her, please contact the office and we would love to set up an appointment for you.