When you know something for a while, you can think that it is common knowledge. That’s why I was surprised when I heard someone say that she thought that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was something that only soldiers have. No! PTSD is not just for the military. It’s not just for men. PTSD can happen to anyone.
What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?
- Behavioral: agitation, irritability, hostility, hypervigilance, self-destructive behavior, social isolation, jumpy
- Psychological: flashbacks, fear, severe anxiety or mistrust, emotional detachment
- Mood: inability to feel pleasure, guilt, or loneliness
- Sleep: insomnia or nightmares
- Cognitive: intrusive thoughts
How Does a Person Get PTSD?
This is a very simplistic explanation: When a person is confronted with a threat, the brain kicks into “fight or flight” or “freeze” to deal with the threat. This could look like screaming, fighting, passing out, dissociating, or shutting down. Time may distort by either speeding way up or down. The memory of the event may be hyper clear, distorted, or there may have no recollection of the event at all. These are all typical responses that are beyond conscious control. It doesn’t matter how well trained you are, how much information you have, or how calm and cool you tend to be in other situations. Your brain chooses the response to the threat, not you. It’s a survival mechanism that is designed to keep you safe. If any of the above happens, it is working as it is designed to work.
When the danger is over, the body shakes it off, “rest and repair” kicks in, and the body goes back to normal. In PTSD, the threat overwhelms the nervous system and “fight or flight” or “freeze” gets stuck in the “on” position. Consequently, the brain is always in a state of hyper arousal. This keeps the person on high alert all the time. They never get to fully rest or recover. This affects the entire body including social functioning, breath, sleep, and digestion. It may also impact sexual functioning and pain sensations. The longer this continues, the harder it becomes to maintain homeostasis.
Some life threatening traumatic events that could cause PTSD are easy to identify: seeing military action, being the victim of domestic violence, or experiencing sexual assault. Some thing that cause PTSD may not be what you’d normally think of as being strong enough to create PTSD because maybe they aren’t seen as life threatening. They are: witnessing a crime, being bullied, invalidation, being in a car accident, seeing someone die, working as a first responder, having neglectful parents, feeling abandoned, romantic betrayal, having a medical procedure, verbal abuse, experiencing a natural disaster, experiencing a spiritual or identity crisis, or kidnapping. It doesn’t matter how close you came to actually losing your life. It just matters whether or not your brain saw the threat as overwhelming and whether it was able to reset after the incident. If it resets, it just becomes a horrible memory. If it doesn’t, PTSD results.
The tricky part of this is that sometimes a person may have PTSD without the classic symptoms. Maybe there are no nightmares and no angry outbursts that we associate with movies. If a person is in “freeze,” he may be seen as someone who is really cool and doesn’t react to much of anything. Maybe he’s a little emotionally detached. If the brain is in freeze, this person could also have PTSD. When treating this type, the person may look worse before he gets better. If a person has had a traumatic experience and is not himself afterwards, it’s probably time for an assessment.
Can It Be Cured?
Many people live with untreated PTSD because they are not aware that they have it so they don’t ask for help. Or perhaps their providers think they are depressed, have a sleep disorder, or perhaps an anger problem so they are being treated for something else.
PTSD is a brain issue. Drugs may control the symptoms, but it won’t cure it. Talking may help temporarily, but that won’t cure it either. If you want it to get better, you have to start with the right diagnosis and the right treatment. Fortunately, there are many treatments that work to reset the brain that will allow the person to have a normal, healthy life again. As this is a mind/body condition, modalities that address the mind and body tend to work faster and better. The sooner after the trauma treatment begins, the easier it is to restore functioning (usually).
This is not something that people just grow out of. It requires treatment. In fact, if the trauma happened as a child, there is quite likely a part of that person that didn’t grow up completely. That child part may need to learn skills that he didn’t get to learn because he was too busy surviving. In that case, treatment is not just about resetting the brain, but teaching new skills. After all, if he stayed safe by being explosive or withdrawing, that won’t work in a safe world.
If you are in the Richmond, VA and would like to be evaluated for PTSD, contact me. I’d love to help.