Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is often used interchangeably with trauma. It is also often used mildly in passing, but it’s important to know that it’s a serious condition, and trivializing it can cause serious damage to those struggling with it. PTSD is more than just an immediate reaction to a trauma. It’s normal to feel all sorts of negative emotions after a trauma, like anger, frustration, fear, sadness, helplessness, and numbness.
But PTSD is a long and intense version of that. It’s chronic, lasting at least one month but usually well past that, and creates distress and some sort of impairment in functioning in your daily life, whether that be at work or in the personal sphere.
PTSD can appear in many different ways. For example, some people experience vivid flashbacks and recurring nightmares. These memories are intrusive, uninvited and hard to get rid of. This is one of the ways in which PTSD presents a constant burden in one's life. Other symptoms include negative changes in mood and capacity to think or plan, such as negative thoughts and perceptions about oneself and the world, feeling less interested in activities, and feeling more isolated. People can also experience changes in physical and emotional reactions, like irritability, destructive behaviour, insomnia, getting easily startled, and feeling aimless or having difficulty concentrating. These symptoms might appear all together at once, but not necessarily. PTSD can also appear alongside other forms of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, self-harm, and dissociation from reality, which can really add to the burden someone with PTSD carries.
An interesting thing about PTSD is that symptoms may not appear for years after the triggering event, meaning that the trauma can be “dormant”. This is why it can sometimes be hard to make an association between PTSD and its root cause. Many people aren’t aware of the cause of their trauma, or have repressed the trauma years ago and sometimes may not even remember it! Similarly, conscious avoidance is common. This can entail avoiding thinking or talking about the event, avoiding external cues like certain people, or places that would remind you of the event, and even attempting to stay busy and distracted at all times. When avoidance is extreme or if it is the only way one copes, it can interfere with the healing process.
Another element of PTSD is the tendency to excessively blame oneself or others for the trauma. Children tend to blame themselves the most, which can have a great impact on how they live and grow up with that blame and associated feelings of guilt. This is why it’s so crucial to address traumas early on!A common misconception about PTSD is that it is mostly found in victims of war. While this is often true, it can actually result from different traumatic events such as witnessing or experiencing a serious accident, having a serious illness, and physical or sexual abuse. These events can be experienced directly, or vicariously through other trauma survivors’ experiences, and in that case symptoms may mimic those of PTSD.
Nowadays, the COVID-19 pandemic is a growing factor contributing to distressing symptoms worldwide. From the uncertainty of the first year to the fear of illness and loved ones dying, the pandemic has exacerbated many people’s pre-existing mental conditions and anxieties, and has resulted in signs resembling those of PTSD, especially in those who were critically ill and admitted to intensive care.
Another important element to mention is that trauma is subjective. What may qualify as a traumatic experience for one may not for another, but it is important to recognize that each experience is valid, and we should avoid comparison, or the possibility of undermining others’ feelings. With that, not every trauma will develop into a complete PTSD diagnosis, studies show that approximately 1 in 3 will. In fact, some protective factors may mitigate the adverse effects of the trauma and help relieve it before it is out of control, such as resilience, the use of helpful coping skills, positive worldviews, and social support.
Finally, it’s important to know that treatment does exist for PTSD, and it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Seeking professional support can help us process the trauma, learn how to cope with it, and heal from these wounds. There are several types of therapy that are effective in dealing with PTSD, such as trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), prolonged exposure, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR - you may have heard about it from Prince Harry!). Whatever you choose, it’s important to feel supported.
Want to help someone struggling with PTSD? Start by believing them. Validate their pain, do not undermine the trauma by telling the person that there are worse things, or that they need to be grateful for the good things in their life. Offer support, or suggest that they seek support, but don’t pressure them into it. Don’t push them to talk about it, as it can be very difficult to do so and they shall do that when they’re ready. Just be there for them throughout their recovery and you’ll make a world of difference.