Trauma is an emotional response to unusual and even life-threatening events like an accident, abuse or neglect, rape, mass killings, war, or natural disasters. Immediately after such an event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, stress and anxiety, memory loss, avoidance of trauma reminders, flashbacks, nightmares, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.
Some people recover from trauma with time and support of family and friends. For others, the effects of trauma are lasting and can result in deep emotional pain, fear, confusion, and post traumatic stress symptoms long after the event has passed. Furthermore these effects can be severe enough to cause significant difficulties in individuals’ functioning, such as in educational achievement, career success, and interpersonal as well as intimate relationships.
What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a life-threatening event such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood. Most survivors of trauma return to their pre-trauma levels of function with time. However, some people will have stress reactions that do not go away on their own, and may even get worse over time. These individuals may develop PTSD. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged. These symptoms can be quite severe, and last long enough to negatively affect the person’s daily life.
People with PTSD experience three different kinds of symptoms. The first set of symptoms involves reliving the trauma in some way such as becoming upset when confronted with one or more reminders of the traumatic event in their environment or thinking about the trauma when trying to do something else. The second set of symptoms involves either staying away from places, people, and other reminders of the trauma, sometimes resulting in isolation from other people, or feeling numb. The third set of symptoms includes feeling on guard, irritable, or being easily startled.
PTSD is marked by clear physical changes, alteration in brain functioning, as well as psychological symptoms. PTSD is complicated by the fact that people with PTSD often may develop additional disorders such as depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other problems of physical and mental health. The disorder is also associated with impairment In the individual’s ability to function at work or in social settings within and outside their family. Other impacts include marital problems and divorces, family discord, and difficulties in parenting.
PTSD can be treated with psychotherapy and medications when necessary. Early treatment is important and may help reduce long-term symptoms. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that PTSD is limited to exposure to military combat. As a result, many people who meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD neither know that they have PTSD nor seek treatment.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Although PTSD symptoms can begin right after a traumatic event, it is often not diagnosed unless the symptoms last for at least one month, and cause either significant distress or interference with work or home life. Diagnosis of PTSD generally occurs after a person experiences three different types of symptoms: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance and numbing symptoms, and arousal symptoms.
Re-experiencing symptoms involve reliving the traumatic event. This might take form of disturbing memories of the traumatic event and even nightmares. Memories can come back unexpectedly, and without warning. The memories may also be triggered by a traumatic reminder such as when a combat veteran hears a car backfire, a motor vehicle accident victim drives by a car accident, or a rape victim sees a news report of a recent sexual assault. Other environmental factors such as smells, tastes or physical sensations can cause strong emotional and physical reactions. Sometimes these memories that are also known as flashbacks, can feel so real that it is as if the event is actually happening again. Reliving the event can result in intense feelings of fear, helplessness, and horror similar to the feelings experienced during the actual event.
Avoidance and Numbing Symptoms
Avoidance symptoms are efforts people make to avoid reminders of the traumatic event. Individuals with PTSD may try to avoid situations that trigger memories of the traumatic event. They may avoid going near places where the trauma occurred or watching TV programs or news reports about similar events. They may avoid other sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or people that are reminders of the traumatic event. Some people find that they try to distract themselves as one way to avoid thinking about the traumatic event.
Numbing symptoms are another way to avoid the traumatic event. Individuals with PTSD may find it difficult to be in touch with their feelings or express emotions toward other people. For example, they may feel emotionally “numb” and may isolate from others. They may be less interested in activities they once enjoyed. Some people forget, or are unable to talk about, important parts of the event. Some think that they will have a shortened life span or will not reach personal goals such as having a career or family.
People with PTSD may feel constantly alert after the traumatic event. This is known as increased emotional arousal, and it can cause sleeping problems, outbursts of anger or irritability, and difficulty concentrating. They may find that they are constantly ‘on guard’ and on the lookout for signs of danger. They may also find that they get startled far more easily and more often than they did before the traumatic event(s)
How common is PTSD?
In the United States an estimated 7.8 percent of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with women (10.4%) twice as likely as men (5%) to develop PTSD. About 3.6 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 to 54 (5.2 million people) have PTSD during the course of a given year. This represents a small portion of those who have experienced at least one traumatic event; 60.7% of men and 51.2% of women reported at least one traumatic event. The traumatic events most often associated with PTSD for men are rape, combat exposure, childhood neglect, and childhood physical abuse. The most traumatic events for women are rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, and childhood physical abuse.
About 30 percent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD. An additional 20 to 25 percent have had some symptoms related to PTSD at some point in their lives. More than half of all male Vietnam veterans and almost half of all female Vietnam veterans have experienced “clinically serious stress reaction symptoms.” PTSD has also been detected among veterans of other wars. Estimates of PTSD from the Gulf War are as high as 10%. Estimates from the war in Afghanistan are between 6 and 11%. Current estimates of PTSD in military personnel who served in Iraq range from 12% to 20%.
Therapy for Trauma and PTSD
Psychotherapy is the most effective form of treatment for healing from the effects of trauma. At MentalVerdure.com we provide therapy or counseling to help people who have experienced trauma and those diagnosed with PTSD make sense of their experiences and feelings, develop plans to stay safe, learn healthy coping skills, and connect with other resources and support. Our qualified therapists can help people heal from trauma even long after the traumatic event took place.
The types of therapy that are most commonly used and recognized for their effectiveness in trauma treatment are cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Other forms of therapy that have been clinically tested include psychodynamic therapy, hypnotherapy, and exposure therapy. Other therapies that may be used, include group therapy. In some cases, medications, such as anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, and mood stabilizers, are employed to help manage the more challenging symptoms of post-traumatic stress.