We often hear about members of the armed forces suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after witnessing, or being involved in, traumatic events, but all of us can suffer from PTSD.
When we find ourselves involved in significant traumas we are at risk of PTSD. It can be any kind of trauma such as a large scale or a small personal incident. Some of the more common causes are –
- Being attacked or assaulted
- Being bullied
- An accident
- A fire
- A life threatening disaster
PTSD can also become even more complex when, for example, the trauma is repeated, children are involved, a form of abuse is involved or we get injured. It feels like we are trapped at the time of the event and repeated violence is involved.
PTSD can start sometimes within hours of the trauma, or days, weeks and even up to six months after we experienced the cause of the PTSD.
Once we experience something really traumatic, we lose our sense of our life being a safe and secure environment, we feel life isn’t fair any more (how that of could happened to me?) and finally we realise how fragile our life is as we realise we are not immortal. These are the normal reactions to a very distressing and stressful situation that will last for about a month and then dissipate. However, for one in three of us they continue.
We then tend to make the situation worse by avoiding the location, activity or people involved. This is a short-term solution that maintains the feelings we have which does not allow us to recover a normal way of feeling, thinking or behaving. We get stuck in the process and it feels like this will never end. We find ourselves in a situation where our normal stress reaction is ‘on’ all the time with no relief.
So, why some of us would get stuck?
Most traumas are frightening, and the memory remembers frightening events very clearly so as to serve as a warning if the same chain of events should ever happen again, we know what to expect.
No matter how distressing the memories are we are wired to hold this memory at the forefront of our minds. With PTSD the memories remain clear and fresh and reappear without the chain of events taking place as flashbacks, re-running the trauma in our minds including all the sounds, smells and emotions so we are prepared.
We get tired and fearful due to this re-running trauma, and so we start to find ways to numb out the feelings/memories or avoid anything that will remind us of them. Alcohol, drugs or food are amongst what we can use to do this.
Those flashbacks make our bodies prepare for another trauma, adrenaline is produced and the fight, flight or freeze reaction is activated. Anxiety, fear, anger, insomnia and many other emotions follow. Meanwhile the brain is trying to process the memory of the event and the adrenaline affects the part of the brain that normally does this by slowing it down or stopping it from storing it and making it less and less important.
When we cannot move on from the feeling that life is unsafe and fragile, our core beliefs are challenged and this changes our relationship with ourselves (self-esteem, self-respect etc) and therefore our relationships with others are affected.
All of these changes often go unnoticed as we feel initially we don’t want to talk about what happened – let’s face it the flashbacks are bad enough without going back over it with someone else! We don’t want to feel weak, or be pitied or thought of as unstable. We fear upsetting others especially if the incident was really horrific, so we prefer to talk about the symptoms, the headaches, anger, and depression. This leaves those who can help unsure of what is the cause of our issues.
How do we know if we have PTSD? It’s a complex condition and as we are all individual, it depends on the trauma, our past issues, the support we have and how quickly we realise something is wrong. Some key symptoms are –
- Involuntary flashbacks whilst awake
- Recurrent distressing dreams
- Dissociative reactions when we act or feel like if the traumatic events are recurring
- Intense or prolonged distress at exposure to internal or external reminders of an aspect of the traumatic event
- Inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic events
- Long term negative beliefs about ourselves and an inability to feel good about ourselves
- Long-term blame of ourselves or others for what is happening to us or how we feel
- Persistent and intrusive negative emotions we cannot control like anger, shame or fear
- Detachment from others that where we feel more and more distant from others over time
- Reckless or self-destructive behaviour
- Hypervigilance when we are constantly on guard looking for the threat that does not exist
- Inability to concentrate
- Insomnia or major sleep disturbances
- Increase in the use of drink or drugs
- Emotional numbness
- Suicidal tendencies
- Physical symptoms, our body will often have symptoms if we do not express emotions – IBS, headaches, unidentified pains etc.
There are some things we can do to help ourselves if we have PTSD, but this is a serious issue and most people need professional help from a counsellor, therapist or an organisation that will support our recovery. Some easy things to are –
- Learning to relax using whatever techniques work best for us – mindfulness, meditation, breathing techniques
- We need to try to lead as normal a life as we can – going to work, seeing friends,
- Exercise to help clear our heads
- Checking out our thoughts – do we catastrophize, mind read, generalise etc. and looking for positive thoughts to replace the negative ones
- Slowly expose ourselves to those things that have been scaring us to find out that we believe will happen (negative) isn’t true
But as I wrote before, most people need help to get free from PTSD. See your GP as soon as you start to see the symptoms to get a referral to someone who can help.
Elaine Bond Counselling – 07769 152 951