Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a trauma or stressor-related disorder that can develop in people who have experienced a traumatic, life-threatening or catastrophic event.
Once referred to as “shell shock” or battle fatigue, PTSD first became recognised internationally after World War 1. Although it is most commonly associated with war veterans, anyone, including children, can develop PTSD. It can occur after involvement in an accident, assault or natural disasters, with a greater risk of occurrence if the event involved deliberate harm or repeated traumatic experiences. Even witnessing a distressing incident, or being exposed to those who have, can trigger PTSD symptoms in some cases.
People with PTSD may experience ongoing re-occurrence of the same feelings that they experienced during the traumatic event(s) – depressed or negative mood or thoughts, dissociative symptoms or a combination of these symptom patterns. The symptoms may interfere with the person’s ability to carry out their everyday life, work and relationships.
Four common issues experienced by people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Repeatedly re-living the event, including the accompanying physical or mental distress, through memories, flashbacks or dreams.
- Hyperarousal or hypervigilance – being overly alert, ‘on edge’, wound up or irritable.
- Avoiding people, places or anything that may remind them of the trauma.
- Feeling emotionally numb or uninterested.
Everyone experiences emotions like trauma differently. Sometimes people will not recognise the traumatic event as an issue but experience mood disorders, relationship problems, poor sleep, sexual dysfunction, or physical health complaints such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems and skin disorders.
How can family and friends help?
Support networks play a vital role in recovery from any emotional issue. It can be helpful to read up about common responses to trauma so you know what to expect, but the simple act of providing emotional and practical support helps enormously. Working to remove other potential stressors in the person’s life is one of the most supportive things you can do, because it allows the person to focus more on his/her recovery.
It’s also really helpful to allow for and encourage people to continue with a routine, ensuring they get up each day, do something they enjoy and look after their physical health.
It is very important to provide a helpful ear but avoid spending too much time going over the event in detail. Detailed exploration needs to be handled carefully by a professional, and you should encourage your loved one to seek professional help to unpack these feelings safely.
How is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder treated?
Many people recover on their own or with the help of their support networks. For this reason, professional treatment does not usually start until about two weeks after the experience BUT it is important to seek out help whenever its needed.
Most treatments involve psychotherapy, but in some cases medication can also help. Exercise, mindfulness and self-help strategies have also been shown to be of benefit, both to the symptoms of PTSD but also for associated conditions like depression, anxiety and sleep problems.
The very nature of PTSD symptoms means that they can be re-triggered by particular places, people or other reminders, so it’s important to make a recovery plan with help from a professional.
When should help be sought?
If you have experienced a traumatic event and:
- Don’t feel any better after two weeks
- Feel highly anxious or distressed
- Have reactions that are interfering with daily life
- Are thinking of harming yourself or someone else.
It’s important to ask for help. Most of us will feel symptoms of trauma in the days and weeks immediately after a traumatic event but if things are not getting better over time, you should reach out.