When we think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, we think of the news stories about soldiers coming home. We think of war, all its horrors, and flashbacks. We think of losing control, anger, and aggression.
PSTD might be affecting your life without your knowledge, either impacting you directly or someone you know. Here is some information to increase your awareness of what PTSD is, how it affects people, and what can be done.
What Causes PTSD?
After my brother died in 2011 of suicide, I began encountering strange symptoms. I would be fine one moment, then gripped by intense fear or helplessness the next. My body was sluggish, yet always on high alert. I lost my appetite, my weight and sleep patterns fluctuated, and my emotions were inexplicable and erratic.
After months of suffering, I finally shared the extent of my symptoms with my dad. A veteran, he said, “You might be experiencing some PTSD, sweetheart.”
PTSD, I thought. Isn’t that reserved for soldiers who see horrible things on the battlefield? I dug into some research and found there was so much more to PTSD; so much I didn’t know.
There are three types of PTSD: acute, chronic, and delayed-onset.
Acute PTSD lasts less than three months. It usually follows some traumatic event, and the symptoms are the body and mind’s response to what it cannot comprehend, like the unexpected loss of a loved one, or a natural disaster.
Chronic PTSD lasts longer than three months. The disorder might resolve on its own, or it might persist, necessitating medical attention.
Delayed-onset PTSD appears six months or more after an event has occurred. Initially, we might have coped with a trauma, when suddenly, a slew of symptoms arise, and we might not even relate them to the original trauma, given our coping had been effective. Delayed-onset PTSD can arrive even years after an event.
Anyone can get PTSD
At any time, over 14 million Americans are experiencing PTSD. (1) An estimated 70% of adults will experience a traumatic event in their lives, and 20% of those events develop into PTSD. (2)
Doctors don’t exactly know what causes PTSD. There’s a lot of individual variation when it comes to how someone responds to trauma. Some people are inherently more resilient than others. It doesn’t mean they’re better. Often, the variables influencing resiliency are outside our control, though we can change our biology by choosing to train in resiliency, harnessing powerful practices that prepare us for the unexpected.
The NIH states PTSD can develop in anyone who experiences an event that is “shocking, scary, or dangerous.” (3) It’s normal, of course, to have intense stress after an event that fits those descriptions, but if the symptoms persist, a PTSD diagnosis might be appropriate.
Signs and Symptoms
There are a host of symptoms associated with PTSD, ranging from physical to emotional to psychological. We all know about flashbacks and bad dreams, but there are other, more subtle symptoms, too. (4, 5)
Feeling on guard even when there’s no threat or danger
Trouble sleeping and concentrating
Chronic pain, tension, or digestive problems
Feelings of mistrust, anger, fear, helplessness, or hopelessness
Trouble staying in a committed relationship, or feeling detached from loved ones
Feeling overwhelming guilt or shame
Avoiding thinking about events that are triggers
Trouble remembering details about the traumatic event
Lost interest in previously enjoyable tasks and activities
Harboring negative thoughts, and difficulty experiencing positive thoughts
Depression or suicidal ideation
There’s a process of diagnosing PTSD, performed by physicians and psychiatrists. If a number of these symptoms relate to you, please contact your doctor. If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal ideation, call 1-800-273-8255, or chat online at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
What happens in the brain and body?
Although we might not know exactly why PTSD occurs, we do know some of the mechanisms that are triggered.
When we experience stress, we receive a spike in two stress-related hormones: cortisol and norepinephrine. Their job is to put us on high alert, readying our bodies to escape threat and survive.
When our stress becomes chronic, these systems fail to shut down. Our bodies are coursing with stress hormones, even though there is no imminent danger. If this activation persists, critical areas of our brains are altered, including the amygdala (which is in charge of this “survival mode”), the hippocampus (in charge of emotions and creating memories), and the prefrontal cortex (our executive function).
The circuitry in these areas rewire, promoting the continuation of this vicious cycle, enabling trauma-related activation. In short, when we have PTSD, it’s much harder for us to stop our bodies from experiencing constant stress, because our brains become stuck in that patterning. (6)
What can be done?
Although the situations sounds dire, and can be, there are many effective treatments for PTSD. No one is a lost cause.
There are both medications and psychological techniques specifically designed to work with the body and brain’s hyperactive stress response. In working with trained professionals, and with time and repetition, we can rewire our brains and return them to their appropriate functionality.
Some of the therapies include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), exposure therapy, and counseling. (7)
In addition to professional help, there are things you can do in your personal life to better take care of yourself.
Relax. Given PTSD is a chronic state of stress and an overactive nervous system, do what you can to rest and relax. This might include taking time away from the stimulus of technology, drawing baths in the evening, incorporating naps in your day, meditating, breathing, or doing yoga. Whatever is restful for you, make sure to indulge generously. Your body needs extra support. Consider it your job to take care of it.
Exercise. No matter where your fitness level is, start engaging in a daily exercise routine, even if it’s only 10 minutes. Not only will it help you dissipate some of the anxious energy, exercise improves sleep and is a natural feel-good-hormones booster. (8)
Connect with your close friends and family. Mental illness is an isolating experience. More often than not, your loved ones want to be there for you. Even if you find it hard to share your experiences with them, let them know how they can best support you. By giving clear directions, not only will they feel like they’re contributing to your well-being, you’ll have some of your needs fulfilled, and you won’t be doing it alone.
This can be difficult, we know. That is one reason we created the 30 Days of Love Challenge. It's an inward journey designed to help you derail that pain and steer yourself back towards love. Love for yourself, and love for others. You can also be anonymous and yet still get a good form of free group support from others taking the challenge. So take a little love from us and…
❤ TRY IT FOR FREE! ❤
Give back. Volunteering and helping is not only a great way to broaden our perspective, it gives us a sense of meaning and purpose and improves our self-esteem. (9) Find local volunteer opportunities that interest you and give you a sense of purpose.
PTSD is not an experience reserved just for veterans, though their occurrences are far higher than civilians. PTSD can touch anyone, whether in their own life, or the people around them. Having a better knowledge of how to recognize the condition, an understanding of what’s happening, and how to seek help is crucial for our society.
If you or anyone you know is showing signs of chronic stress that impedes daily life, consult a doctor. Together, we can work to build a society that doesn’t stigmatize mental illness, but instead, nonjudgmentally recognizes it for what it is, then supports one another in taking action towards well-being. After all, we weren’t put on this planet to be solitary individuals. We’re a community, supporting one another through thick and thin, light and dark, hope and despair.
All is human. All is welcome. Through it all, let’s hold hands and journey together.