Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a form of anxiety that can develop after a person experiences a traumatic event. We all experience feelings of fear and heightened stress when we are in danger. Our heartrate rises and we can lose the ability to think clearly. We may even manage feats of great strength just to get ourselves out of the situation.
This ‘flight or fight’ instinct is a natural response that usually settles once the danger has passed. However, people with PTSD can feel frightened and anxious for weeks, months or even years. The disorder does not always appear immediately. Sometimes, it can surface quite a long time after the event. In extreme cases, it can affect the person’s ability to function normally in daily life.
The condition was first officially diagnosed in Vietnam War veterans; however, it has been known to exist for thousands of years. It has had many names including Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS), shell shock, battle fatigue and combat stress. Other situations can also trigger PTSD including physical and emotional abuse, accidents and natural disasters.
PTSD can develop in people that experience or are threatened by trauma, someone closely connected to that person or someone who witnessed a traumatic event that affected others.
In Australia, 50 – 65% of people have been exposed to one or more traumatic events during their lifetime. Of these, around 12% will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but, of those that do, around half will improve without formal treatment.
We don’t know why some people develop PTSD while others don’t. We do know there are some risk factors that increase the likelihood of a person developing the condition after experiencing trauma. These include:
Many people re-live the trauma mentally through nightmares and flashbacks. Often these generate emotions so real and raw that it can feel as though the trauma is happening all over again.
Other symptoms include:
If you have experienced some of all of these symptoms and they are affecting your daily life, it is a good idea to discuss them with someone you trust. For many, simply talking to family and friends or your doctor and allowing yourself the time to recover from your shock may be all you need. Learning about PTSD and what to expect from it, is also very helpful.
If possible, take time off and do things you find relaxing. Sometimes the body needs to go into recovery mode after shock and you may feel the need to sleep for long periods. That is quite normal, however, don’t let it become a habit.
Stress-management and relaxation techniques can be very beneficial. Activities such as yoga, swimming or Tai Chi all help to keep you calm and ‘grounded’.
If, after a few weeks, your symptoms have not subsided, talk to your family GP and tell them what you have been experiencing. In addition to the self-help options mentioned above, they may suggest you begin a form of ‘talking therapy’ with a professional counsellor.
Depending on your situation, they may choose to use treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. In these sessions, your therapist will help you explore your memories and thoughts and then learn to separate them from your strong, negative emotions. The aim is to be able to reduce the impact that the memories hold over you so that you are no longer overwhelmed and controlled by them.
Other therapies that may help you include art therapy, pet therapy or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. In some cases, medication may also help; however, it is usually withheld until after other treatments have been tried first.
Therapy is always tailored to suit your needs and there is no pressure to be ‘cured’ within a set time-frame. What is important is that you have an open, trusting relationship with your counsellor and that they have the knowledge and experience to know how to help you. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is serious, but it is also manageable and there is plenty of help available to you through it.