Trauma & PTSD
What is PTSD?
Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that may occur after a traumatic event, or after multiple traumatic events.
Trauma can take many forms. Commonly, we think of events such as sexual assault, car accidents or natural disasters. However, other life experiences such as neglect in childhood, school or workplace bullying, medical crises, the death of a loved one, a job loss or relationship breakdown can also be traumatic. Each person responds uniquely to the things that happen to them. Regardless of an event itself, if our ability to cope is overwhelmed by a perceived threat, we will likely experience it as traumatic.
Post traumatic stress manifests in different ways. Some people experience an acute stress response that naturally resolves over time with the support of family and friends. For others, the impacts of trauma can persist for months or years and develop into PTSD. Approximately 25% of people who experience a traumatic event go on to develop PTSD. About 12% of Australians will experience PTSD in their lifetime.
The effects of trauma
Traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain and body than ordinary memories. When a person is overwhelmed by a traumatic event, the brain seems to be unable to process the experience as it normally would. Therefore, the thoughts, feelings and sensations associated with the trauma get ‘trapped’ in the nervous system. Remembering the distressing event may feel as bad as going through it for the first time because the memory is unprocessed and 'frozen in time'.
When faced with reminders, a person may experience sudden, overwhelming images, emotions and body responses that makes them feel like they are back in danger. The brain then unconsciously signals a fight/flight/freeze response that resembles the survival response that occurs during trauma. This explains why trauma survivors suffering from PTSD may have sudden bursts of anger, urges to run away and hide, panic attacks or states of numbness that seem to appear out of nowhere. These responses are typically triggered frequently and unpredictably. This often leads people to feel anxious or on-edge much of the time, have difficulty sleeping, use substances or food to cope, or go to great lengths to avoid any reminders of past traumatic events.
PTSD has four groups of symptoms:
Re-living the traumatic event – Reliving the traumatic event through unwanted and recurring memories, vivid images and nightmares. There may be intense emotional or physical reactions (eg. fear) when reminded of the traumatic event.
Being hyper-alert –Sleeping difficulties, irritability and lack of concentration, becoming easily startled and constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.
Avoiding reminders of the trauma – Deliberately avoiding activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event because they bring back painful memories.
Feeling emotionally numb – A loss of interest in everyday activities, feeling disconnected from friends and family, or emotionally flat and numb.
Do I have PTSD?
The following is a helpful PTSD checklist that has been developed by Beyond Blue:
Have you experienced or seen something that involved death, injury, torture or abuse and felt very scared or helpless?
Have you then experienced any of the following:
upsetting memories, flashbacks or dreams of the event?
feeling physically and psychologically distressed when something reminds you of the event
If you answered yes to all of these questions, have you also experienced at least two of the following:
had trouble remembering important parts of the event
had very negative beliefs about yourself, others or the world
persistently blamed yourself or others for what happened
persistently felt negative, angry, guilty or ashamed
felt less interested in doing things you used to enjoy
feeling cut off from others
had trouble feeling positive emotions (e.g. love or excitement)
And have you experienced at least two of the following:
difficulties sleeping (e.g. had bad dreams, or found it hard to fall or stay asleep)
felt easily angered or irritated
engaged in reckless or self-destructive behaviour
had trouble concentrating
felt on guard or vigilant
been easily startled?
If all these things have been happening for a month or more, you may be experiencing PTSD.
What causes PTSD?
Strong emotional reactions such as fear, anger or sadness are natural responses after a traumatic event. For most people, these feelings will pass with time and with support from family and friends. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD.
People with a past history of mental illness or trauma (particularly in childhood) and current stressful life conditions or a lack of social support are more likely to experience PTSD following exposure to trauma. Other factors such as genetics and personality type can also play a role in influencing whether or not a person experiences PTSD.
There are three broad categories of treatment for PTSD, these include:
Psychological treatments (talking therapies)
Physical treatments (medications)
Self-help and alternative therapies
Often a combination of the above PTSD treatment approaches can be helpful. A thorough assessment by your doctor is needed to decide on the best combination for you.