What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? (PTSD)

When in danger, it’s natural to feel fear. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or avoid it, i.e., the “fight-or-flight” response. But people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.

Signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can range from flashbacks to nightmares, panic attacks to eating disorders, and cognitive delays to lowered verbal memory capacity. Many trauma survivors also encounter substance abuse issues, as they attempt to self-medicate the negative effects of PTSD.

After a traumatic experience, it’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected. But if the upset doesn’t fade, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can begin after any event that makes you fear for your safety. Most people associate PTSD with rape or veteran soldiers. Military combat is the most common cause in men. An experience that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and leaves you emotionally shattered, can trigger PTSD—especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.

PTSD can affect people who personally experience the traumatic event, those who witness the event, or those who pick up the pieces afterwards, such as emergency workers and law enforcement officers. PTSD can also result from surgery performed on children too young to fully understand what’s happening to them. Whatever the cause for your PTSD, with treatment and support, you can learn to manage your symptoms, reduce painful memories, and move past the trauma.

When a traumatic event occurs, the mind doesn’t have the time to logically and rationally process the event, especially where there is a high degree of emotion attached to the experience. Counselling and help ‘unpack’ the jumbled up traumatic memories and re-assess and make sense of the upsetting experience.

PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood.

Do you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

If you answer yes to three or more of the questions below, you may have PTSD and it’s worthwhile to visit a qualified mental health professional.

  • Have you witnessed or experienced a traumatic, life- threatening event?
  • Did this experience make you feel intensely afraid, horrified, or helpless?
  • Do you have trouble getting the event out of your mind?
  • Do you startle more easily and feel more irritable or angry than you did before the event?
  • Do you go out of your way to avoid activities, people, or thoughts that remind you of the event?
  • Do you have more trouble falling asleep or concentrating than you did before the event?
  • Have your symptoms lasted for more than a month?
  • Is your distress making it hard for you to work or function normally?

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are four main types of symptoms.

  1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or intense mental or physical reactions when reminded of the trauma.
  2. Avoidance and numbing, such as avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, being unable to remember aspects of the ordeal, a loss of interest in activities and life in general, feeling emotionally numb and detached from others and a sense of a limited future.
  3. Hyperarousal, including sleep problems, irritability, hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”), feeling jumpy or easily startled, angry outbursts, and aggressive, self-destructive, or reckless behavior.
  4. Negative thought and mood changes like feeling alienated and alone, difficulty concentrating or remembering, depression and hopelessness, feeling mistrust and betrayal, and feeling guilt, shame, or self-blame.

Counselling can help a person with PTSD to challenge their feelings of helplessness. Focusing on what you can control is a powerful strategy as well. Exercise has been shown to help too – exercise naturally release endorphins and can boost a person’s mood. Finally – getting support can be the saving grace, it’s important not to suffer in silence.


Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD can be successfully treated, even when it develops many years after a traumatic event.
Any treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and how soon they occur after the traumatic event.
Any of the following treatment options may be recommended:
watchful waiting – monitoring your symptoms to see whether they improve or get worse without treatment
antidepressants – such as paroxetine or mirtazapine
psychological therapies – such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)

Several types of psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, may be used to treat children and adults with PTSD. Some types of psychotherapy used in PTSD treatment include:

  • Cognitive therapy. This type of talk therapy helps you recognize the ways of thinking (cognitive patterns) that are keeping you stuck — for example, negative beliefs about yourself and the risk of traumatic things happening again. For PTSD, cognitive therapy often is used along with exposure therapy.
  • Exposure therapy. This behavioral therapy helps you safely face both situations and memories that you find frightening so that you can learn to cope with them effectively. Exposure therapy can be particularly helpful for flashbacks and nightmares. One approach uses virtual reality programs that allow you to re-enter the setting in which you experienced trauma.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories and change how you react to them.

Your therapist can help you develop stress management skills to help you better handle stressful situations and cope with stress in your life.

All these approaches can help you gain control of lasting fear after a traumatic event. You and your mental health professional can discuss what type of therapy or combination of therapies may best meet your needs.

You may try individual therapy, group therapy or both. Group therapy can offer a way to connect with others going through similar experiences.