Although post-traumatic stress disorder (often called PTSD) can affect anyone exposed to trauma, the condition is often associated with combat violence or those working in the military.
However, although war veterans are at increased risk of developing the condition, PTSD doesn’t come with an exemption tag. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t discriminate; PTSD affects people from all walks of life, independent of age, ethnicity, and gender.
If you have experienced a traumatic event or been exposed to repeated trauma, you may be at risk of developing PTSD. This article explores PTSD, its symptoms, risk factors, and effective treatments that can help.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health condition brought on by a traumatic experience or a series of traumatic events. There are three main types of trauma, including:
- Acute trauma – occurs when an individual experiences a one-off, isolated traumatic event, sometimes called single-event trauma. Examples include a physical or sexual assault, car crash, and natural disasters (wildfire, flood, earthquakes, etc.).
- Chronic trauma – occurs when someone is exposed to repeated or prolonged traumatic events. These events may include domestic violence, chronic illness, neglect, or witnessing a loved one’s terminal illness.
- Complex trauma – occurs when an individual is exposed to various, multiple traumatic events. Complex trauma involves repeated, severe, and interpersonal harm that often starts in childhood. Children with complex trauma have often experienced numerous interpersonal traumatic events at a young age, severely affecting their functioning and overall development.
PTSD at a glance
PTSD is a widely misunderstood mental health condition, mainly because it’s tied to specific events or situations; for instance, there is a strong misconception that PTSD only affects those serving in the military or people exposed to a natural disaster.
Unfortunately, a lack of awareness and education about PTSD may mean that those with the condition do not seek treatment despite needing it or are completely unaware they even have the disorder.
Here are some facts about PTSD that you may find helpful:
- PTSD can affect anyone exposed to a traumatic event. You may develop the condition after experiencing an event that threatens your safety or the safety of those around you. Furthermore, you may develop PTSD from experiencing a traumatic event first-hand or witnessing something frightening that affects you long after the event.
- Response to trauma is extremely varied. It is common for most people to experience trauma symptoms in the first few days following a traumatic event. On the other hand, those who develop PTSD may experience symptoms weeks, months or even years after a traumatic event occurs.
- Common PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance behaviours and intrusive thoughts about an event. You may also feel on edge and anxious a lot of the time without knowing why. This is called hypervigilance.
What type of events cause PTSD?
As mentioned, various events can trigger trauma symptoms.
Although there are some common risk factors, there is no telling who will be affected by PTSD and why.
For example, one person may be unaffected by a particular event or experience, while another – exposed to exactly the same situation – might become plagued with PTSD symptoms.
However, certain events are more likely to trigger PTSD symptoms than others.
These events include:
- Domestic abuse or violence
- Physical or sexual assault
- Being involved in a severe car accident (or another serious incident)
- Chronic illness, involving invasive medical procedures
- The sudden death of a loved one
- Childhood abuse or neglect
- Feeling unsafe at home
- Being bullied at school or in the workplace
- Losing a loved one to suicide
- Witnessing a loved one’s long-term illness and/or physical and mental decline
- Learning about something terrible that happened to a loved one
Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience; this insight may be helpful when deciding whether or not an event has affected you to the extent that you may need professional help.
Only you will know how much a particular event has affected you and how deeply these experiences have impacted your life.
Trauma treatment can help you accept your past, allowing you to reprocess distressing memories or experiences in a safe and supportive space.
What it feels like to live with PTSD
Living with PTSD can make life seem more challenging; the complex nature of trauma can mean that we’re often unaware of how deeply our past experiences have affected us, if at all.
It is common for people with PTSD to experience intense flashbacks or painful memories they’d prefer not to think about; still, these memories may continue to plague them in the most unexpected and unlikeliest of ways.
Re-experiencing is a hallmark symptom of PTSD, where a person experiences unwanted traumatic memories that intrude into or replace what is happening in the present moment. (Types of Re-Experiences in PTSD, Verywell mind, Matthew Tull, PhD, November 16, 2020.)
You may be enjoying time with friends or out on a first date and suddenly find yourself remembering an upsetting event or experience; these memories are usually disturbingly painful and involuntary.
In addition, you may experience physical symptoms as part of a re-experiencing episode, such as a racing heart, sweating, trembling, pins and needles, and other unpleasant feelings and sensations.
As mentioned, re-experiencing is a core feature of PTSD, where a person may experience various other physical and emotional symptoms, including:
- Intense feelings of distress when reminded of the traumatic event.
- Feeling as though the event is happening all over again (this is referred to as a flashback).
- Experiencing recurrent nightmares and intrusive thoughts about the event.
- Being physically responsive to any reminders of the event, including sweating, racing heart, uncontrolled anger or rage, and being hypersensitive to certain sounds, smells, objects and specific situations, even when no danger is present.
- Intrusive thoughts or memories about the event that may trigger feelings of sadness, guilt, regret or anger.
- Avoidance behaviours (this involves avoiding any reminders of the event at all costs).
Flashbacks can be incredibly frightening, especially since most people are unaware of what they are and where they come from.
According to researchers, flashbacks are perceived as happening right now, replacing the present scene. (Types of Re-Experiences in PTSD, Verywell mind, Matthew Tull, PhD, November 16, 2020.)
If you have ever experienced a flashback, you’ll be familiar with how unpleasant these episodes can be; for example, you may be having an enjoyable day, and suddenly you are catapulted back to the past, mentally reliving some of the worst moments of your life.
Flashback episodes can be monumentally upsetting and draining when they occur, sucking all the joy and fun out of the present moment and leaving people with little energy or reserve.
During a flashback episode, you may lose all awareness of your present surroundings and re-experience a traumatic event as if it were happening again.
In addition, you may not recognise you are having a flashback, making the experience all the more frightening and confusing.
Researchers report that flashbacks most often centre on the ”Warning! Watch out!” moment when, at the time the trauma occurred, the person first felt the threat of danger or harm. (Types of Re-Experiences in PTSD, Verywell mind, Matthew Tull, PhD, November 16, 2020.)
The above explanation may help build understanding and context around why people experience flashbacks; perhaps a person’s uncontrolled rage or defensive actions are because they feel seriously threatened right now.
Risk factors for PTSD
Although re-experiencing is prevalent in PTSD, these symptoms alone do not mean an individual will develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Moreover, healthcare professionals aren’t entirely sure why some individuals develop PTSD and others don’t. However, certain risk factors may increase the risk of developing the condition.
Common risk factors for PTSD include:
- Genetics – various studies show that genetics may influence the development of PTSD. Like other mental health conditions where genetics play a crucial role, such as depression and bipolar disorder, recent findings show that genetics may also contribute to the development of PTSD.
- Biological factors – research shows that individuals who score high in neuroticism might be at increased risk of developing PTSD than those with lower scores. In addition, other research shows those with lower IQ scores may be more prone to developing post-traumatic stress disorder than those with higher IQs.
- A history of mental illness – those with a history of mental illness are more likely to suffer from PTSD; for example, those suffering from mood disorders, anxiety disorders and depression may be at increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other factors such as divorce, financial worries and work or school stress may also contribute to a person developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Support from family and friends is imperative and can help improve treatment outcomes for those with PTSD.
However, support alone may not always be enough, particularly for those experiencing severe PTSD symptoms. Many people need professional help and support from an experienced mental health practitioner who can diagnose and treat PTSD.
Most rehabilitation centres provide trauma-informed treatment to those with PTSD and other types of trauma.
Trauma-informed treatment helps to improve PTSD symptoms by:
- Reducing anxiety and depression
- Alleviating and reducing PTSD symptoms
- Teaching people healthy coping skills, thus enhancing the quality of an individual’s life
Trauma treatment may vary depending on an individual’s symptoms, history and other factors. However, most treatment programs address and treat various types of trauma, including acute, chronic and complex trauma.
The most effective trauma treatments include the following:
- Eye movement desensitisation reprocessing (EMDR) – involves using side-to-side eye movements (sometimes called bilateral stimulation), and other techniques, to help release emotions stored in the body or blocked by trauma. When traumatic experiences occur, any associated memories and emotions can get trapped in the nervous system, causing various unpleasant symptoms for the individual. EMDR encourages the release of trapped emotions attached to each memory.
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) – involves challenging any beliefs, ideas or perspectives you may have developed due to your traumatic experiences. This treatment can be facilitated through individual therapy or within a group setting.
- Prolonged exposure (PE) – involves gradually exposing you to any fears or phobias that may be holding you back until you no longer feel anxious or afraid.
Medication may sometimes be prescribed on an individual basis, particularly if there are any co-occurring mental health conditions.
In our experience, integrated treatment approaches work best and should form part of a holistic treatment plan to give clients the best possible recovery from PTSD and any co-occurring mental health conditions.
Trauma treatment at Camino Recovery
Camino Recovery provides personalised treatment to clients with various addiction and mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you or someone you know are struggling with PTSD, contact one of our trauma specialists today to learn more about our trauma treatment programs.
We are here and ready to guide you every step of the way.