Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

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.


Who experiences Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

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.


What are the risk factors?

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:

  • Working in emergency or armed services – especially those regularly participate in active service.
  • Having a personal or family history of psychological illness – Those who have experienced some form of anxiety or depression in the past may be more vulnerable. There is also a possibility that genetics may play a part.
  • Hormonal imbalances in the body – People with abnormally high levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol) may switch into ‘fight or flight’ mode even when there is no obvious trigger or the danger levels are low.
  • Subtle differences in brain structure – Brain scans have shown that the areas of the brain that process memory and emotions are smaller in some people with PTSD. This can make it harder for the brain to process the strong memories and emotions related to trauma and the effects.
  • The type of trauma involved – certain types of trauma are more likely to lead to PTSD mainly due to the extreme levels of fear and other emotions they generate. For example, survivors of car accidents and female victims of rape have a very high change of developing PTSD.


What are the most common symptoms?

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:

  • Avoiding any people or situations that could remind the person of the event.
  • Becoming increasingly withdrawn and isolated.
  • Turning to alcohol or other drugs in an attempt to block out painful memories.
  • Developing sleeping problems such as insomnia.
  • Experiencing heightened sensitivity and emotions such as feeling ‘on edge’, being overly cautious or angry or guilty for no apparent reason.
  • Experiencing a dulling of the senses and emotions. For example, losing appetite, the ability to concentrate or becoming depressed.


How can I manage Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

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’.


What treatment options are available for PTSD?

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.

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