Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is frequently talked about in the context of returned military veterans, but wartime trauma is not the only trauma that can develop into PTSD symptoms. Single, isolated events can also bring on the symptoms and it’s important to identify them. In fact, cording to PTSD United, 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. This equates to approximately 223.4 million people. It is also important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. In fact there are several treatments that have been shown to be highly effective for the resolution of symptoms and return to a higher quality of life.
To understand the diagnosis well, let’s break down the name. “Post” – refers to the time frame of a minimum 1 month, after the trauma. Within the first 30 days of a trauma one might be diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder. “Traumatic” – refers to the trauma itself that being life-threatening event or injury or sexual violence. These can be directly experienced, known to have been experienced by a loved one, witnessing it happening to someone else, or secondary experiencing like in first responders and emergency personnel. “Stress” – refers to the symptoms that develop to cope with the event. These include intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and memories of the trauma, dreams and nightmares where one “re-experiences” the trauma, insomnia, extreme distress in response to external reminders of the trauma, strong physiological reactions to internal or external stimuli that prompt fear or panic. In response to the stress of remembering and re-experiencing the trauma, one might cope using a variety of avoidance strategies to keep memories out of awareness. These strategies may include attempts to distract oneself of the memories and sometimes might encompass the use of alcohol or other drugs, and/or other forms of addictions including online shopping, gambling and pornography. Distraction is not the only strategy used, avoidance of people, places and things that trigger memories or that strike a disturbing similarity to the environment of the trauma are common as well. Thinking patterns might also change as a result of the trauma and become overly or irrationally negative. These patterns might include a certainty that no one and nothing is safe in the world, also, one might become convinced that they are to blame for the trauma. Detachment from loved ones, disinterest in usual activities and an inability to experience positive emotions can all be common responses to trauma.
Although these are difficult symptoms to acknowledge, often because acknowledging them might feel like re-experiencing the trauma, there is great hope in treatment. The avoidance strategies can begin to shrink one’s life experience smaller and smaller, either because they begin avoiding more and more things, or because their other strategies are further impairing their functioning, or both. It takes courage to face the memories of trauma, but the act of speaking to a mental health professional alone can empower a survivor to find their inner strength and resilience. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Troubled by traumatic events? Take a free, online, anonymous screening for post-tramatic stress disorder
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