Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Life is not easy for any of us, but there are some life events that cause persistent mental health problems for the people that experience them. Experiences of actual or threatened death, sexual violation, or a natural disaster can incur lasting psychic wounds that harm people for long periods after their exposure.
People who have dealt with difficult or traumatic events in their lives often experience adverse symptoms in the months or years following these events. While many people recover without permanent injuries to their mental health, others experience mood symptoms, negative thoughts, and even physical symptoms that can make functioning in normal life difficult for them.
When these symptoms reach a clinical level of impairment, a mental health professional can diagnose a person suffering from these issues with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When Does Trauma Exposure Become PTSD?
Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that develops in some people who have been exposed to a traumatic event, like a natural disaster, sexual assault, or episode of violence.
The DSM-5, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by the American Psychiatric Association, has included PTSD as a diagnosis since 1980. Not everyone who suffers from a traumatic event ends up with PTSD symptoms, but understanding what constitutes post traumatic stress disorder can help people take ownership of their mental health and seek help if their traumatic event has had lasting effects on their mental health.
A good rule of thumb is that if symptoms have persistently affected your functioning for more than a month, you are dealing with potential PTSD. If you have noticed symptoms in yourself or a loved one for longer than that, it is time to seek help.
What To Do If You Or A Loved One Is Suffering
The following will outline some symptoms of PTSD that sufferers experience. See if any of the following symptoms sound familiar to you.
If they do, you should consult a professional and request an appointment to see if you can benefit from treatment for this serious mental health condition. PTSD treatment can help sufferers of this disorder manage their symptoms and lead normal lives by minimizing the impairment caused by the hypervigilance, sleeplessness, and other symptoms of PTSD.
Flashbacks to the Traumatic Event
One of the more difficult symptoms of ptsd that sufferers deal with is the “flashback,” a colloquial term for a re-experiencing symptom. As the name suggests, the person experiences symptoms that make them feel as though they are going through the traumatic event all over again.
This can happen in waking life, when a stimulus reminds the person of the traumatic event and they experience physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions associated with the original event. Traumatic memories are re-awakened and the patient may struggle to re-orient themselves in the current time and place.
Although most people don’t fully lose consciousness during a flashback, it can be incredibly destabilizing as the person struggles to regain their grasp on the present and “snap out” of the flashback.
People who experience severe flashbacks may be at risk of serious injury if they begin to react as though they are actually living out the traumatic experience again.
Nightmarish dreams are another type of re-experiencing symptom and may be even more troubling, as they can vividly recreate the circumstances of the incident and cause the person to fully believe they are back in the time and place when it occurred, which only occurs in the most severe and dissociative waking flashbacks.
Victims of childhood abuse frequently deal with these dreams, which may remind them that they have been a victim years after the abuse occurred, as these memories can be partially repressed as a defense mechanism.
For people who have mostly moved on from their traumatic past, these dreams can be an involuntary and painful reminder of what they have been through and cause trouble sleeping, which then exacerbates the symptoms they experience while awake.
Painful memories are another re-experiencing symptom that sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) contend with. While they may occur daily or every few weeks, these memories make it difficult to leave the past beyond and move on.
Sufferers seek out distractions to drown out these difficult memories, often resorting to substance misuse in search of a way out. Realistically, their best chance for overcoming the influence of these memories is seeking treatment.
Support groups for PTSD also offer help in the form of wisdom from other people who have been through the worst that the disorder holds and come out the other side intact.
Following exposure to a traumatic event, a person may feel anxious in daily life, especially when exposed to stimuli that remind them of the event. While some people are able to overcome the discomfort induced by these reminders, others begin to avoid these stimuli, whether consciously or unconsciously.
These traumatic event avoidance symptoms make life difficult, as the stimuli can be as common and innocuous as the smell of cinnamon or the sound of a pop song.
How To Recognize Avoidance
People who develop PTSD are often identified because they recede from public life. They will avoid conversations that threaten to bring up these subjects, making talk therapy difficult or ineffective, and will even avoid family members that remind them of their trauma, even if they are not perpetrators or enablers of the abuse.
This cuts off sufferers of PTSD from potential support systems and leads to long-term deterioration in their emotional health. People need close friends and family members to be emotionally healthy, and the isolation they experience when they cut them off only makes their path to recovery more difficult.
A lack of family support is one of the risk factors for substance abuse and other mental health problems. A professional can help you work through your family history to uncover issues from your childhood (or before) that may be impacting your mental well-being.
How Gradual Exposure can Treat Mental Illness
One of the more promising treatment options for addressing PTSD, in particular the avoidant cluster of symptoms, is prolonged exposure therapy. The technique, a form of cognitive processing therapy, uses gradual, incremental increases in stimuli to help people adjust to being around things that remind them of their trauma.
Turning Point of Tampa and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Turning Point of Tampa treats addiction, eating disorders, and dual diagnosis. Our clients many times will have a combination of symptoms including post traumatic stress disorder. Our clinical team welcomes those who want to heal from PTSD however we only accept patients who also have a primary substance use disorder.
If you or a loved one suffers from addiction and post traumatic stress disorder, Turning Point of Tampa is ready to help you navigate the road to lasting recovery.
Negative Thoughts and Feelings
Another aspect of PTSD that can make it difficult to distinguish from other mental disorders is the prevalence of negative ideation. This symptom is common in other conditions, but it is a feature of PTSD as well.
A person who develops PTSD may experience days where they feel no pleasure from activities they used to enjoy, or they may be persistently bothered by feelings of worthlessness or doom.
At their worst, these symptoms may become full-blown suicidal thoughts. These negative mental processes manifest physically as well, with symptoms like stomach aches and other bodily pains that cannot be explained by physical ailments.
These are called somatic experiences, and while they are not completely dangerous, they reflect the deep impact that traumatic experiences have on the people that undergo them.
Connections With Other Mental Health Disorders
People suffering from PTSD may have trouble feeling positive emotions. The use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to treat PTSD, which are typically prescribed for major depressive disorder and other mood-based disorders, reflects the degree to which these symptoms impact sufferers of the disorder.
Unless the clinician does the work to uncover the patient’s history of trauma, they may attribute their issues to other mental health problems.
Another set of symptoms of PTSD that can often be confused for another mental illness is the cluster of arousal symptoms. Sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder often describe feeling ill-at-ease, even in circumstances where they ought to feel safe.
Why PTSD Is More Common In Veterans
Many veterans who develop PTSD report feeling like they are still at war, even months or years after returning from the battlefield.
They may not suspect mental illness at first because these adaptations make sense in the context of a dangerous battle environment, but when the symptoms persist long past the danger in question, it becomes clear that they are PTSD symptoms.
Special Challenges for Veterans
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 7-8% of people will experience PTSD symptoms in their lifetime, but that number is significantly higher for veterans. The hyper-arousal these people experience can lead to angry outbursts and paranoia. Veterans do have access to some resources specifically tailored to their needs, like the Veterans Crisis Line.
Complex post traumatic stress disorder develops when people are subjected to multiple compounding traumas over their lifetime.
PTSD Awareness Month
Every June, advocates and patients set time aside to spread the word about PTSD.
Spreading information about PTSD helps people recognize its symptoms in themselves and their loved ones.
PTSD and other mental illnesses can co-exist with substance use disorders and other conditions.