Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Causes, Signs, Treatment, and Self-help tips
What is PTSD?
In recent years it seems the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder / PTSD” is more commonly talked about than it was in years past. PTSD, however, is nowhere near a “new” diagnosis.
PTSD has existed as a condition since time immemorial. Prior to the Vietnam War, the condition was referred to as “shell shock,” “soldier’s heart,” and battle fatigue. With advances in mental health medicine and technology, following the Vietnam War, in 1980, “PTSD” the American Psychiatric Association (APA) added PTSD to the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III).
Causes of PTSD
While Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is most commonly associated with military veterans returning home from war, the formal definition of PTSD expands to include a much wider variety of situations. In fact, post-traumatic stress can affect anyone who experiences a terrifying, horrific, life-threatening event or events. Instances of PTSD are more common in women than men and multiple traumas increase the likelihood of the redevelopment of PTSD in future experiences.
Signs and Symptoms
Individuals suffering from PTSD share some common characteristics, including reliving the trauma, negative changes in brain and mood function and avoidance behaviors. Some of these characteristics may present themselves in the following ways:
• Recurring, intrusive thoughts, memories, dreams, images, or flashbacks of the traumatic event.
• Emotional detachment (sometimes described as feeling emotionally dead, or emotionally numb), difficulty showing loving feelings to others, overwhelming feelings of blame or guilt (toward self or others).
• Avoidance of “triggers” that remind the sufferer of the trauma. PTSD sufferers may avoid certain places, people, activities, conversations or thoughts because they add to the the trauma, distress and anxiety. Sufferers of PTSD commonly seek tools for avoidance and use numbing behaviors like substance abuse or alcohol abuse, to “escape.”
• Apathy – An individual suffering from PTSD may take a general pessimistic view of their future, and find it difficult to make future plans.
• An attraction to destructive or reckless behaviors may exist, in an attempt to quell the numbness a PTSD sufferer feels.
• Hyper-arousal and hyper-alertness – PTSD sufferers sometimes have problems falling asleep and staying asleep, increased vigilance, a higher than normal startle reaction, increased irritability often accompanied by anger or volatility, and difficulty concentrating.
When an individual experiences these behaviors and symptoms for more than one month, the individual is considered to be a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder. When issues like these persist beyond three months, the post traumatic stress disorder is considered chronic. Sadly, though, many more people experience PTSD than meet the criteria set forth by the DSM.
Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a certified doctor of natural medicine, doctor of chiropractic and clinical nutritionist. In one of his PTSD studies, he says that about 70 percent of adults in the U.S. will experience some type of traumatic event at some point in their lives, and among these people about 20 percent will go on to develop the condition called post traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD)
PTSD can affect both children and adults who have dealt with completely different types of traumatizing events. These events don’t necessarily have anything to do with war-time experiences or violence. Risk factors for suffering from PTSD include: surviving a natural disaster, getting into a car accident, dealing with another type of sudden illness or injury, and suffering from abuse, neglect, domestic violence or sexual assault.
The Silent Sufferers
There are those individuals whose symptoms do not fully meet the DSM’s criteria for an official PTSD diagnosis, but that still suffer pain from unhealed emotional wounds. These individuals lives may be limited by chronic anxiety and panic attacks, insomnia, depression, fatigue, emotional reactivity, and body pain.
These sufferers don’t know that their emotional and health issues are stemming from prior trauma, they just assume this is how life will always be for them. Domestic violence or childhood mental, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse wounds often lay dormant within the mind of a victim, only to subconsciously affect the victim’s ability to make good relationship choices in their adult lives.
Injury, illness, and ongoing financial struggles often show up in a post-traumatically wounded psyche and body, and will continue to appear until these wounds are fully healed.
In the words of Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., a pioneering research clinician in post-traumatic stress disorder and the neurobiology of trauma, “People with PTSD lose their way in the world. Their bodies continue to live in an internal environment of the trauma. We all are biologically and neurologically programmed to deal with emergencies, but time stops in people who suffer from PTSD. That makes it hard to take pleasure in the present because the body keeps replaying the past.”
There is a Road to Wellness
In an attempt to treat PTSD, the traditional medical community, while well-intentioned, often has done as much harm as good. While traditional pharmaceutical medicines might manage anxiety, insomnia and depression to some degree, the pharmaceutical approach fails to engage the deep emotional wounds that make up PTSD.
As a doctor of natural medicine, Dr. Axe in no way discounts the efficacy of prescription medications, saying they can even be life-saving for some patients. They can also be an important catalyst towards recovery while also beginning other natural treatments. Medications will not work for every patient. There are no guarantees and a wide array of reactions depending on the specific drug.
Ideally, the road to wellness would include eliminating dependence on chemical pharmaceuticals. Some of the many holistic healing treatments for PTSD include:
1. Therapy & Counseling – Specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Considered highly effective in the treatment of PTSD, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a treatment in which thoughts are examined in order to determine how they affect behaviors and self-perception. As we mentioned earlier, PTSD sufferers often feel “numb” and unable to access their “emotional brain.” Cognitive Behavioral Therapy trains the patient to better access their emotions and form connections to their feelings.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy also works to help the patient increase their self awareness, and regain control over their lives. The theory behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, according to Dr. Axe is:
“We always have the power to change how we feel because our feelings are rooted in our brains’ chemical interactions, which are constantly evolving. If we break cycles of thought patterns, our brains will adjust for the better.”
2. Desensitization & Exposure to Fears – Exposure therapy is conducted by a professional therapist who works to help the patient gradually face situations, objects or locations that bring up strong feelings of the traumatic event. Subcategories of the Desensitization Approach include Prolonged Exposure (PE) (using imagining, writing, drawing or painting, or visiting the place where the event happened.); Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) (having the patient focus their attention on physical movement or sensations (like breath, sounds or hand movements) while they recall the trauma and talk about it openly; and other approaches designed to help the patient’s brain work through the traumatic memories.
3: Yoga and Meditation – research supported by the National Institutes of Health found that the reason mind-body practices work so well for reducing PTSD symptoms is because they positively impact the nervous system. This is because they can change chemical signals sent via the vagus nerve back to the brain. Studies have found that we can directly influence the type of hormonal and chemical signals sent from the body to the brain. This means signaling to the brain if we should feel aroused versus relaxed depending on how we manipulate our body.
Self-help tips from a former sufferer turned Survivor
While the treatments and approaches to PTSD are various and continually evolving, one of the strongest predictors of being able to overcome PTSD is “building resilience” through social support and close relationships.
As a sufferer of PTSD, you may be reading this and finding there is hope out there for you. You might make plans to schedule an appointment with a cognitive behavioral therapist, or sign up for a trauma sensitive yoga course – only to find that by morning, your PTSD symptoms have convinced you to stay in bed.
My advice to you, as a fellow former PTSD sufferer (turned Survivor, on my own road to wellness), is to get yourself a few trusted “coaches.” Even if you feel like your condition has progressed to the point of alienating those who love you most, there are still resources available to you (some at little to no cost) for finding support in taking that first tiny step towards healing.
You might just need to wake up in the morning and let someone talk you through the first steps of the day, and give you a little momentum to keep moving. No matter where you live, the National Crisis Hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can pick up the phone and call them at any time. Be honest with the person on the phone about your need for therapy, and the difficulty you may be feeling about reaching out. Call as many times as you need to until you feel comfortable in taking the next step. Your information is kept completely anonymous, and you never have to feel embarrassed about reaching out for help.
There’s an entire wonderful world waiting for you to live again. Why not start today?
Author: Tennille Shelley
Resources & References
www.traumacenter.org: a go-to site for definitive information on trauma and its treatment.
Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How they Heal, by Belleruth Naparstek, Ph.D, is an excellent book describing the continuum of stress and post-traumatic stress, the neurobiology of trauma, and how the brain heals.
Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, by Bessel van der Kolk.
The Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy, by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D.
Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper.
Get Your Life Back: 5 Natural Treatments for PTSD Symptoms, by Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS
Trauma Sensitive Yoga West J1,2, Liang B2, Spinazzola J
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