Anyone can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That is one of the most important facts you should remember. There are two factors needed in order for PTSD to develop and if you are reading this you have one of the factors: you are a human.
That does not mean you will develop PTSD, however, not even if you experience the second factor, which is trauma.
Anyone who experiences trauma, which the National Institute of Mental Health defines as a “shocking, scary, or dangerous event,” could experience PTSD. Another important fact to remember is that PTSD is largely short-term and is healed from naturally.
There are people who only experience mild symptoms and there are also people who don’t experience any symptoms—but that is rare. Also rare—based on research—is chronic PTSD, where it doesn’t seem to go away after time or treatment, or the combination of both.
That doesn’t mean someone has to live with PTSD forever, though. There are ways forward!
After experiencing a traumatic event—that’s what “post-traumatic” means—the body and brain continue experiencing certain sensations and emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, and even confusion.
First, when humans are in a situation that is—or even seems—life threatening, we have a kind of natural defense system that can kick in. You’ve probably heard of it referred to as the “fight or flight” instinct.
The theory is that your body is preparing itself for another scary situation, getting ready to react for when the danger shows up again. A lot of doctors and researchers compare it to humans learning that there were animals in the wild that could hurt or kill them.
All of us have millions of years of history within us, of our bodies and brains learning to fear certain things and to protect us from them. So the “fight or flight” response kicks in and we make a decision: to run or to stay and try and survive.
When it’s not a situation that requires either of those, however, our body doesn’t recognize the difference. So, for instance, if you are involved in a car crash or even just witness a car crash your body may then be preparing for a car crash every time you are in a car.
A lot of things can trigger the feelings associated with PTSD and this feeling of nervousness or of being on edge is sometimes referred to as hyperarousal. Although you may know rationally that you are safe, there is a deeper part of you that is preparing for danger.
Another aspect of this is a high level of adrenaline. People with chronic PTSD have been shown to have higher levels of adrenaline, the chemical our bodies use to stimulate us and to dull pain. When the body continues to produce this it can lead to that feeling of being on edge, or that you cannot calm down.
Studies have also indicated that our brains can be affected by trauma, specifically our hippocampus, which is the area that regulates emotions and memories. By scanning the brains of PTSD sufferers specialists noticed the hippocampus was smaller than normal.
Those studies indicate the change to the hippocampus might lead to those with PTSD not healthily processing flashbacks, nightmares, and the anxiety they produce.
Hopefully this helps you understand what PTSD is and why it may develop. But what does it feel like? How can you tell if you are experiencing PTSD?
Sometimes called “re-experiencing” or simply just traumatic memories, this is where you are confronted with thoughts about the traumatic event. There are a few specific forms of this, such as experiencing flashbacks or struggling with nightmares.
What exactly is a flashback? It’s when your mind can supply images, sounds, and even physical sensations that might produce the exact feelings you had while experiencing the traumatic event. It can sometimes feel like you are right back in that moment.
Nightmares can work similarly but they don’t always have to be the exact images or experiences that led to your PTSD. Our brains are odd and tricky things so they can occasionally scare us in ways we don’t understand.
Another symptom based in recalling trauma is repetitive, distressing images or sensations. This is somewhat related to flashbacks but—like nightmares—are not limited to just the images or sensations you experienced during the trauma.
Similar to how our brain can supply nightmares that aren’t recreations of the specific traumatic event, the distressing images can be flashes of violence you didn’t witness, and the sensations can be unrelated as well, like feeling as if you are falling.
Another way physical sensations can appear is through random pain, sometimes in joints but not limited to there. Someone may also begin sweating excessively, feel as if they could vomit or just feel sick in general. It’s also possible for someone to begin shaking, almost like they are incredibly cold.
This one may be the hardest to notice because it seems like a natural response to trauma, pain, and hardship. Our minds need to process these things, however, and avoiding that creates more problems rather than allowing us to heal.
When someone is steering clear of anything that may potentially remind them of the traumatic event, this is called avoidance. It can be as simple as not going to certain places that remind them of the trauma, or as complex as making sure to steer conversations in certain directions.
Someone may try to use hobbies or work to draw their mind away from the memories. By keeping themselves busy both physically and mentally they believe they are avoiding the pain and will eventually just forget about it.
Perhaps worse is shutting themselves off from all emotions and ignoring their feelings altogether. Humans need emotions, we are guided by them and use them to balance our lives, sometimes in ways that we don’t even perceive.
Without emotions a person can end up becoming cut off from their friends and family. They can begin losing the connections to things they used to love and their life in general may start to become harder and harder to navigate.
Doctors will sometimes refer to this as hyperarousal but it is easier to understand as feeling “on edge” or not being able to relax. As you read above, PTSD can confuse our bodies and give the wrong signals about what and where is safe.
What can happen when someone experiences persistent anxiety and fear? It can lead to uncharacteristic anger, and especially sudden outbursts.
Another effect of constant anxiety or fear is being emotionally irritable. Think of this as lacking the ability to calmly deal with small inconveniences, or overreacting to something that would normally not be that big of a deal.
Other possibilities are difficulty sleeping or concentrating and also full insomnia. Some of these symptoms have a layering effect where one will worsen the other.
Those suffering from PTSD can become trapped in a cycle until they seek treatment and help. Although some cases of PTSD do lessen or go away in time, why wait? Why continue to suffer when you can receive professional help to heal?
Let’s look at some ways PTSD can be treated.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has helped with treating PTSD for years. They have studies showing over 50% of those receiving treatment that includes evidence-based, trauma-focused therapy can heal from PTSD.
Similarly, those studies show a little less than half can utilize medication to heal from their PTSD and no longer experience ongoing symptoms. This is why seeking treatment is so important: it works.
One of the most used and researched methods is a form of therapy SUN Behavioral utilizes. Let’s take a look at how it works.
There are three things CBT utilizes to help you get past PTSD, and they are your own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. All three of these form who we are and are also very closely related; one impacts the other, and so on.
“Cognition” and “cognitive” specifically refers to the feelings (and a lesser extent to thoughts) because it is concerned with how we perceive things. Behavior is obviously referring to how we act and respond to things, which can be a combination of feelings and thoughts.
When going through CBT a patient will be sitting in a one-on-one therapy session with a therapist. The treatment focuses on examining how we think, feel, and behave. Using this structure the therapist helps someone in treatment move away from negative reactions to each factor.
By switching the thought pattern from negative to neutral, or even positive, CBT focuses on re-orienting how your body reacts to stress. Doing this helps re-frame how a thought related to the trauma will affect how the patient feels and behaves.
For instance, if they were involved in a car accident, the patient may be focusing on the negative feelings they experience when getting in a car. During CBT they would learn how to focus on feeling safe and trying to control their physical reactions as well. This is obviously a simplified version of what the therapist would take them through, but does showcase the process of changing thought patterns.
The length of CBT treatment depends on the person struggling with PTSD, just like the length and severity of the PTSD is dependent on that as well. An average length of CBT treatment tends to be three months, however.
Other treatments include Prolonged Exposure (PE) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Both of these are methods that are similar to CBT in that they want to help reframe how your mind and body reacts to negative situations.
The journey through the struggles of PTSD is a daunting one. Don't go it alone. Call SUN Columbus today.
At SUN Behavioral we specifically focus on CBT. Our therapists are trained to use this evidence-based treatment to help patients move past the trauma and the PTSD they’re struggling with.
We offer both inpatient and outpatient services to help at every stage of treatment. If you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD, do not hesitate to give us a call at 859-429-5188. We’re ready to help you and to meet your needs in whatever way brings peace to your life.
It is possible to heal from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and that distinction is very important to make: healing versus being cured. PTSD is not a sickness or a disease, so a “cure” does not exist. Also, the road to healing from PTSD can occasionally have long stretches of struggling with and managing symptoms. There is no one thing that you can do to get past PTSD because it involves the complex human brain. So yes, you can heal from PTSD, but it may take longer than you’d like and it may look vastly different than you wish.
There is no best treatment, but only because that would mean there is one treatment that works for everyone and works at the same level of effectiveness always. Why is that? Every person is different which not only means how someone reacts to PTSD is different, but also what treatment is best and most effective will as well. One treatment that is used regularly is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) where a therapist will help the patient focus on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s an evidence-based treatment, which means it’s been used over many years and has been studied, with documented scientific results. Medication can be used, such as antidepressants, but again, this largely depends on the person. Doctors and therapists also advocate using mindfulness practices like meditation. Occasionally service animals are also used as a way to increase comfort and relieve stress.
This will be different for almost every person dealing with PTSD. Someone dealing with mild symptoms may heal naturally over time, but there is no real way to know exactly how long that could be. Along with no common timeline for healing, PTSD symptoms do not always show up immediately after or even relatively near the traumatic event that took place. It can sometimes be months before someone experiences PTSD symptoms, and in some cases maybe even years. And just like the symptoms can show up at different speeds, each person will heal differently. There are people who heal in weeks, some in months, and unfortunately for some it may take longer. The important thing to remember is that help exists and healing is possible.
The capable team at SUN Kentucky has been serving our community for years. Reach out to begin your journey to recovery.