First of all, what exactly is post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
PTSD usually occurs after a traumatic event. This traumatic event isn’t fully processed at the time and then later on, intense psychological distress can occur at cues that trigger memories of the original trauma. Typical traumatic events include witnessing something incredibly disturbing, (many soldiers suffer from PTSD after witnessing upsetting scenes of war, conflict), sexual abuse, emotional abuse, a car accident and so on.
Symptoms of PTSD
Symptoms usually appear within 3 months of a traumatic event although it has occurred that some people have only experienced PTSD 50 years after the event. It can happen at any time, that something in a person’s current life, can trigger off a memory – it could be a sight, hearing a song, being touched in a certain way or smelling something that triggers of PTSD.
Typical signs of PTSD include persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic event in your mind, persistent avoidance of certain things that might trigger a person, impairment to functioning in some way, disorganised behaviour, loss of emotional expression and/or recurring nightmares and flashbacks.
Disassociating can also occur as a way to cope with the intense psychological distress. PTSD sufferers may also try to avoid thoughts and feelings through a loss of interest in certain things, they may suffer from amnesia or seem to display a lack of expectation in life. Each person is unique and there can be various manifestations of PTSD.
A person with PTSD may display the opposite of disassociative behaviour by being hyperviligant, having an exaggerated startle response, engage in angry outbursts or have difficulty concentrating.
Interestingly, some researcg has controversially shown that those with a lower IQ may be more susceptible to PTSD (according to Taylor, 2006) and this may be due to a lack of ability to process and rationalise a traumatic event.
Treatment for PTSD
One school of thought postulates that the memory of the trauma is held incorrectly in the mind and is not connected correctly to other memories, thereby there is no context for this distressing memory. Cognitive behavioural Therapy can help to place the memory in context through cognitive restructuring. A common treatment intervention for PTSD is done through a technique known as “reliving”. Avoidance of thinking about the trauma prevents dysfunctional assumptions from being tested or corrected and reliving the event can help to place the traumatic event in the mind as less threatening and manageable to the PTSD sufferer.
During reliving a ‘safe place’ is created to help the PTSD sufferer manage to stress and understand they are safe and can remove themselves from the trauma at any time. It allows for mastery over the traumatic memory. The traumatic memory is ‘unpacked’ and repacked in a manageable, less threatening way. Of course, some mental health professionals don’t agree with reliving but the research currently shows this is an effective intervention.
The main aim is to help the PTSD sufferer feel control and mastery over the mental trauma, however that is achieved – whether it is through reliving, systematic desensitisation or other techniques. Adjusting the emotional attachment can make a huge difference to a PTSD sufferer.