Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the brain’s reaction to trauma or injury resulting in an anxiety disorder that can be acute (short term) or chronic (long term). More recently PTSD has also been referred to as PTSI, or Posttraumatic Stress Injury. Why the change? PTSI identifies the brain’s reaction as an injury rather than a disorder in an attempt to eliminate the stigma attached with the word “disorder,” which is a disturbance or derangement that affects the function of mind or body. PTSD is the brain’s natural response to an injury, not a sign of inherent weakness, nor should it ever define an individual affected by it.
What is PTSD? PTSD is the brain’s ongoing reaction to either direct or indirect exposure to a life-threatening event, serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. Sometimes PTSD occurs after directly experiencing or witnessing one of these situations, learning that someone close to you was traumatized, or indirect exposure to details of a trauma as a result of your job or professional duties, as in the case of military personnel, first responders, and 911 operators. It can result from being exposed to events such as acts of war, vehicle accidents, physical or sexual assault, natural disasters, the death of a loved one, or exposure to others being seriously injured or dying.
People react to these extreme events in various ways, but not everyone gets PTSD. Risk factors for developing PTSD include having a weak support system, childhood adversity, emotional fragility, biological predisposition, or repeated exposure to traumatic events. Some measures that can increase resilience and decrease the risk include early detection and treatment, having a strong emotional support system, and possessing strong coping skills.
It is possible that you may have PTSD if you have been:
- Exposed to a traumatic event
- Experiencing symptoms for more than a month following the event; symptoms may include the following:
- Re-experiencing the event in the form of flashbacks (feeling like it is happening again), intrusive memories or nightmares
- Strong emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the traumatic incident(s)
- Avoiding people, places, or things associated with the traumatic event(s)
- Negative thoughts or feelings such as the following:
- Feeling isolated,
- Feeling detached from others
- Decreased interest in activities that you once enjoyed
- Blaming yourself or others
- Difficulties in feeling certain emotions such as happiness
- Inability to recall parts of the traumatic event(s)
- Arousal or reactivity such as the following:
- Feeling intense anger or irritability
- Having problems sleeping and being extra vigilant
- Experiencing significant difficulties in your social, familial and/or employment activities and relationships
The word trigger is often associated with PTSD. But what are triggers? A trigger is anything that activates symptoms. For someone with PTSD, triggers can be varied and unpredictable in nature. They can result from exposure to places or sights, smells, tastes and/or sounds reminiscent of the trauma, or even thoughts and feelings associated with the trauma. For some, triggers are encountered daily and are often unavoidable. Others don’t even know what triggers their symptoms.
This lack of control often contributes to someone suffering from PTSD feeling isolated, irritable, angry, depressed, or anxious. Such triggers act as an alarm, resulting in the fight, flight, or freeze response. In these situations, an individual suffering from PTSD may experience symptoms of extreme physiological and psychological distress. These may include uncontrollable shaking, an increase in heart rate, sweating, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and other effects such as insomnia.
Another common effect of PTSD is hypervigilance. A military veteran, for instance, will lock their doors, then check the doors, windows, and garage door numerous times to ensure they are still locked, even though they know they are. They may walk into a restaurant or a building and immediately start searching out the exits and mentally formulating an escape plan. Even then, they remain on high-alert for potential dangers. Often these individuals can no longer enjoy social outings due to the need to feel in constant control of their surroundings.
An inability to control triggers and feeling in a constant state of high-alert often leads to avoidance. Individuals with untreated PTSD usually become withdrawn and avoid social and recreational activities they previously enjoyed, as well as large crowds and unknown places and when they do go out. They may also need to sit with their back to the wall or near an exit maintain a small amount of control. They may become disengaged and emotionally detached from loved ones but not really know why, which can have detrimental impacts on personal relationships.
Though exposure to triggers cannot always be controlled, an individual suffering from PTSD can identify their triggers with help from a mental health professional. From there, they can learn to cope and gain control over their reaction to the triggers, thus mitigating the impact.
Some have borne their PTSD symptoms in silence for years because they do not recognize them as symptoms. Others fear appearing weak, worry about financial or career sanctions resulting from their behaviours, and/or want to avoid the stigma attached to mental health breakdowns. Regardless of the reason, it is important to know that help is available, and it is never too late to seek it.
Saterra Psychological & Counselling Services is fully staffed with well-trained mental health professionals who can help you better understand the symptoms of PTSD. With their guidance through effective, evidence-based therapy, you and those close to you can be less fearful and better equipped to manage and relieve the symptoms.