PTSD (Posttraumatic stress disorder) is frequently in the news these days. There’s an epidemic of PTSD in soldiers coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is only one of many sources of trauma in a world filled with trauma. Events that feel life-threatening and that people experience as overwhelming can be considered traumatic. These include incidents of sexual assault, childhood abuse, violence and terrorism, life-threatening accidents, war, and natural disasters.
Does everyone who experiences trauma develop PTSD?
No. Approximately 8% of men and 20% of women develop PTSD after a traumatic event (National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Whether or not you develop PTSD is a matter of a number of factors, most of them outside your control (so don’t blame yourself). These include:
- How old you were when the traumatic event occurred
- Amount of previous stress
- Psychological hardiness before the traumatic event
- How your nervous system is wired, what kind of innate sensitivity you have
- Whether or not you had any control in the traumatic event(s) and could do anything to help yourself or others.
- The nature of the traumatic stressor (some more often lead to PTSD than others)
- The amount and quality of social support available after the trauma
- Appropriate intervention after the traumatic event or when symptoms appear
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD is characterized by numerous symptoms that cause significant disruption to normal life. To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must show three categories of symptoms:
- Re-experiencing the trauma in some form
- avoiding reminders of the trauma
- symptoms of increased arousal
Re-experiencing the trauma
If you have PTSD, one of the ways you suffer is that you keep re-experiencing the trauma in some way, such as distressing memories, dreams, or flashbacks. Over-reacting to things that remind you of the trauma is also considered re-experiencing, even though you may not be aware of what your body and emotions are reacting to.
Not being able to get beyond the trauma is so distressing that you naturally want to avoid anything that may remind you of it. Sometimes without even being conscious of it, you reshape your life to make it smaller and safer, excluding whatever might be threatening. Over a period of time, the need to avoid upsetting reminders can leave you quite isolated.
Another way to avoid having your trauma re-stimulated is to numb out, so nothing can get to you. You might use alcohol, drugs, or food to help you numb out. With numbing, your feelings become flat, and you don’t experience much joy, grief, or anything else.
Hyped-Up Nervous System
Unresolved trauma keeps your nervous system in a state of heightened arousal that can result in:
- jumpiness, startling easily
- hypervigilance, always looking for danger
- feeling irritable, reactive, hypersensitive
- difficulty sleeping
- feelings of panic
- difficulty concentrating
- signs of ANS activation such as accelerated heart rate, rapid breathing, and heart palpitations
PTSD is an official diagnosis of the American Psychiatric Association, which requires that you have a certain number of symptoms in each category as well as a qualifying traumatic stressor (although some argue against the idea of qualifying events). You may have many of the characteristics of PTSD, yet not in the quantities or degrees required to be diagnosed with it.
PTSD doesn’t always show up right away.
For some, there is a delay between the trauma and when the symptoms show up. It can be years before PTSD sets in, so you might, for example, have repressed awareness of trauma in childhood, had a somewhat normal adolescence, and then become overwhelmed by trauma symptoms in your thirties or forties. This may be the result of a stressor that parallels the original trauma or a pileup of stressors that surpasses your resources for coping.
Is there a Cure?
According to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, 1 in 3 people who develop PTSD will always have some symptoms. This doesn’t mean you’ll always have full-blown PTSD, just that you may have some remnants of it. Even so, we can flip our focus and say that 2 out of 3 will become symptom free! People do get better.
A number of new trauma therapies have developed in the last 20 years, many of which claim good success rates. Given the long-term costs of PTSD, finding an effective therapy is a good investment.
Originally published in SelfHelp Magazine.