Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder which is caused by stressful, distressing or life-threatening events. It is estimated to affect 1 in 3 people who have been through a traumatic experience. A diagnosis of PTSD may be considered if symptoms last more than a month after the traumatic event.
What causes PTSD
Examples include being violently attacked, rape or sexual assault, being involved in a car crash, kidnap, abuse, harassment or any event where you fear for your life.
PTSD can also be caused by witnessing an event such as seeing other people being hurt or killed, having a job where you see distressing images on a regular basis or being exposed to extreme violence.
There are countless circumstances that can lead to an individual to develop PTSD. It is not just limited to events listed above. PTSD can vary in severity and for some cases it may be referred to as:
- Complex PTSD – If the trauma has been repeated, lasted a long time or started at an early age.
- Birth trauma – if the condition resulted from a traumatic experience during childbirth.
- Delayed-onset PTSD – if the onset of symptoms begins six months or later after the traumatic event. Secondary trauma – This may occur in people supporting those that have experienced trauma.
What are the symptoms?
Intrusion symptoms involve an unwanted reliving or remembering of the traumatic event which can be very distressing and draining for the sufferer. Many describe them as exhausting and relentless, having a detrimental impact on their mental wellbeing and relationships with others.
These symptoms may present themselves as:
- Intrusive thoughts or images associated with the trauma
- Intense episodes where you feel like you are reliving the event all over again (flashbacks). This can include re-experiencing sights, sounds, smells and feelings related to the trauma.
- Significant emotional distress when confronted with reminders of the trauma
- Somatic symptoms such a pain, trembling and sweating
It is common for those who have experienced a traumatic time in their lives to want to avoid thinking or talking about the event. They may go out of their way to avoid reminders of what has happened. For instance, they might stay too busy to think, avoid places or people associated with the event or turn to substances like drugs and alcohol.
Other avoidance symptoms include:
- Feeling detached from your body (depersonalisation)
- Feeling detached from the world around you (derealisation)
- Feeling emotionally numb or unable to find enjoyment in life
Alteration in arousal and reactivity.
People with PTSD may find themselves feeling extremely anxious and agitated. They can find it difficult to calm down or relax. Trauma related alterations in arousal can result in:
- Irritability and aggression
- A heightened startle response
- Engaging in destructive behaviours (e.g. promiscuity, self-harm, substance abuse)
- Hypervigilance (Being extremely alert and aware of your surroundings; often on the lookout for possible dangers
- Problems concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
Negative alterations in cognition and mood
Experiencing trauma may exacerbate negative thoughts and feelings that an individual may already have about themselves or it could trigger negative beliefs about the sufferer and world around them (i.e. “It was all my fault”, “The world is a dangerous and unsafe place”, “I can’t trust the people around me” . These types of symptoms can often lead to other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia and low self-esteem.
- Being unable to remember certain aspects of the trauma
- Negative mood/feeling depressed
- Finding it difficult to feel positive or happy
- Little to no interest in activities that you used to enjoy
- Feeling isolated and alone
- Having an exaggerated sense of blame regarding the traumatic event (feeling that it’s all your fault)
- Having an overly negative view of the world
When to seek help
It’s natural for some of these symptoms to occur after a traumatic event, however, if they last more than 4 weeks or they have a big impact on your ability to live day to day life then it’s a good idea to seek professional help.
Your doctor may refer you to a specialist for assessment and to decide the best course of treatment. Treatments could include medication, talking therapies such as Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or Eye movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) or group therapies.