The truth about post-traumatic stress

The truth about post-traumatic stress

Some people go through traumatic events but return to normal life after some adjustment. However, what do you do when the terror of the trauma you experienced doesn’t go away?

It’s normal to experience stress in our modern, hectic lifestyles but a traumatic event can leave a person with psychological scars that never heal. For instance, the victim or witness of a violent and life-threatening event will not only be physically affected but will also feel psychologically stressed for a long time. This is especially true if it involved witnessing a death. Some may never really be free from trauma and may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Whether post-traumatic stress will be short-lived or stay on to taunt the victim forever, depends not only on the incident but the victim himself. Most people have natural mechanisms or psychological strength to cope with even the most damaging stress and with time, treatment and self-discipline, the effects of the trauma fade away. However, some people succumb to traumatic stress because they don’t have this natural, psychological strength.

Some examples of traumatic events that can affect a person tremendously include fire, robbery with physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, sexual assault or a horrific car accident. Without proper help and support from professionals and people close to them, the victims of these traumatic events can suffer from PTSD.

Who’s at risk?

Why do some people develop PTSD while others don’t? There is no simple explanation for this but some medical professionals link it to abnormally high levels of hormones produced by the body when it’s exposed to danger.

These hormones lead to the malfunction of a part of the brain that deals with memory and emotion, resulting in repeated flashbacks and nightmares as well as feelings of detachment. With treatment, the hormones can return to normal levels and the brain can undergo self-repair, resulting in greatly reduced flashbacks and nightmares.

Other possible causes include inherited mental health risks and personality traits or life experiences since early childhood, such as neglect or physical abuse. It’s also not uncommon for people with a recent death in the family to develop PTSD. A family member of the victim of a traumatic event can also develop this condition.

Those who are having other mental health problems such as depression, or who are biologically related to those with mental health issues, are at higher risk of developing PTSD. People who are more susceptible to PTSD include military personnel, police personnel and fire fighters. PTSD is usually associated with the military. It is believed that this condition was initially brought to the attention of the medical world, when war veterans struggled with the effects multiple traumatic events during major wars. This is also why some people use the term ‘shell shock’ to describe post-traumatic stress.

The dangers of untreated PTSD

PTSD is medically classified as an anxiety disorder in which a person’s normal response to danger — the fight-or-flight response — becomes distorted. In someone who has PTSD, this response is triggered at the slightest mishap, during a normal day’s events.

PTSD patients are often overcome by intense fear, horror, helplessness, anger and even guilt during an average day. Sometimes it can be so strong that the victims cannot live a normal life.

It’s crucial for victims of traumatic experiences to get help as soon as possible. PTSD symptoms that stretch for more than eight weeks will likely become a permanent trait in the victims.

Symptoms of PTSD

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder often start within three months of a traumatic event, but sometimes may not appear until years later. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. They can cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships.

PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types:

  • Intrusive memories

The patient will keep having flashbacks, hallucinations and nightmares of the ordeal. It could be triggered by even the slightest reference to the incident, such as an anniversary date.

  • Avoidance

The patient will try to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic incident. He may also try to avoid places, activities, situations or people who remind him of the incident. This can result in a sense of isolation and detachment from people, including family members. It can also lead to loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, including hobbies.

  • Increased arousal

Simply put, this means changes in emotional reactions. Patients will have problems relating emotionally to others. They may not be able to show affection or experience emotions. Some have difficulty falling or staying asleep and difficulty concentrating. Patients may also suffer from physical symptoms such as rapid breathing, muscle tension, nausea, diarrhea, blood pressure issues and rapid heart rate.

  • Negative changes in thinking and temperament

This means feeling blue and looking at the negative side of situations.

Prevention and treatments

It’s often challenging to diagnose a PTSD case because many sufferers don’t want to express their actual feelings and often delay seeking medical help. There is no cure for PTSD but with treatment and medications, it may be greatly reduced and patients can live a more normal life. The goal is to reduce the emotional and physical symptoms.

Coming to terms with the event and seeking treatment is often the only effective way to prevent and treat PTSD. One can seek help from psychiatrists, psychologists or a counsellor for specialised care. Doctors will usually conduct various tests to rule out possible physical illnesses related to the symptoms. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed assessment tools to evaluate if the person has PTSD.

Treatments include medications and therapy sessions, such as group therapy, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) as well as hypnotherapy. Doctors may recommend a combination of one or more therapeutic approaches in order to meet the needs of the individual patient.

Psychotherapy

This type of treatment involves helping the patient and family members understand what the disorder is about. Then, the patient will have to learn new skills to manage the symptoms and develop ways of coping.

A variety of approaches are available and these include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy

– to recognise and change thought patterns that are negative

  • Exposure therapy

– the patient will re-live the traumatic experience or be exposed to objects or situations that cause anxiety, done under controlled and safe environments. This method has been very successful in treating PTSD as it helps the patient to confront their fear and gradually overcome it.

  • Psychodynamic therapy

– the patient examines personal values and emotional conflicts caused by the traumatic incident

  • Family therapy
  • Group therapy

– sharing thoughts and fears with people who have similar experiences

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR)

– this is a complex form that was initially designed to alleviate distress caused by traumatic memories

It’s advisable to seek help at an early stage before complications set in and your mental health deteriorates. It may mean having to be brave enough to turn to family and friends for support. Timely help can protect you from self-relying unhealthy coping methods such as drugs or alcohol consumption, which may also push you further into the darkness of PTSD.

Criteria to determine PTSD

The Royal College of Psychiatrists of the United Kingdom has set out several criteria to determine PTSD and these include:

  • Having vivid memories, flashbacks or nightmares
  • Attempting to avoid reminders of the event
  • Having no feelings at all (emotionally numb)
  • Feeling irritable and anxious for no apparent reason
  • Eating more than usual
  • Misuse or abuse of drugs or alcohol
  • Inability to control moods
  • Finding it increasingly difficult to get on with others
  • Feelings of depression or exhaustion
  • Poor concentration, sleep problems, guilt feelings, irritability, angry outbursts.

Physical symptoms like sweating, shaking, dizziness, and chest pains.

Coping with PTSD

Take actions to cope with PTSD by:

  • Following your treatment plan

– medication and therapy set out by your doctor

  • Learning more about PTSD

– learn about and develop coping strategies

  • Taking care of yourself

– get enough rest, eat healthy, exercise and learn to relax

  • Not turning to unhealthy methods of “escape”

– such as taking alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings

  • Breaking away from your thoughts

– go for a walk, focus on a hobby

  • Talking it out with supportive friends and family
  • Joining a support group

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