What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety based Mental Health Disorder:
People who struggle with the symptoms of PTSD do so because they have witnessed or been directly involved in a highly stressful and extremely traumatic event. Usually where there has been a perceived threat to life or safety.
Lots of different events can be described as traumatic. For example:
- Car Accidents, other life threatening/life changing accidents
- Involvement in floods or natural disasters
- Being attacked, mugged or sexually assaulted
- Military combat
- Experiencing acute medical illness leading to life threatening conditions or life changing injury
- Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness
Because of the highly traumatic nature of these events, our minds instinctive ‘Flight, Flight or Freeze’ response activates so we can run from the life threatening danger, fight it, or play dead.
When our brains ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response is activated in a life or death situation, information is stored in our brains in a different way.
It’s as though our minds freeze. The frozen ‘snap shots’ of what happened during the traumatic situation are then stored in our brain and become memories. That means that the ‘snap shots’ of the trauma the brain stores as memories are, (usually), the most intense thoughts, feelings, sensory information, (smells, sounds, tastes), that happened at the time. They are highly distressing. They cannot be turned off or avoided no matter how hard we try. And they are not stored in our minds in an orderly way, so the memories can 'pop up' when we don't want them to or in response to something that reminds us of the traumatic event.
Because the intense thoughts and feelings which happen at the time of the trauma cannot be avoided or turned off, people struggle to come to terms with their new experience of the world. Thoughts such as 'I am weak,' 'I will never be the same' are common.
These mental events lead to symptoms of PTSD which include:
- Experiencing flashbacks to the trauma situation; re-experiencing the traumatic event over and over again in an intrusive way. Flashbacks can be triggered by smells, sounds or other sensory events which remind us of the trauma.
- Having nightmares which are very ‘real’ and which disturb sleep patterns.
- Actively being on the ‘look-out’ for ‘danger’ all of the time; in response to a fear that something awful is about to happen.
- Experiencing the physical sensations of anxiety in general life in a way that was not there before the trauma, not being able to settle, relax.
- Being more irritable than usual which can affect relationships.
- Feeling exhausted, overwhelmed.
- Avoiding behaviour. Avoiding anything that may be a reminder of what happened regarding the trauma.
- Feeling as if the person before the trauma is completely different to the person now and being unable to come to terms with the difference.
- Low mood and depression.
- Loss of confidence and self-esteem.
- Feeling disconnected from life.
- Being unable to ‘control’ emotions; i.e. crying for what would appear to be no reason.
PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have had a traumatic experience. It can occur immediately or it can develop weeks, months or even years after the event took place.
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can arise suddenly, gradually or come and go over time. Sometimes symptoms seem to be in remission and then unexpectedly, they may re-occur for no obvious reason. At other times, symptoms are brought on by specific triggers which provide a reminder of the original event. These can be certain words or images, a particular noise or even a smell.
It is normal to experience a range of emotions after a traumatic incident. However, when the symptoms last for more than a month and start to interfere with your daily life, you may be suffering from PTSD.
How Can PTSD Be Treated Effectively?
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR).
EMDR is a therapy used to treat trauma. It is recommended by The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE).
EMDR allows the brain to process a trauma memory by putting the trauma memory in the 'working' part of the mind whilst simultaneously, replicating the eye movements which occur during REM sleep.
This allows the brain to work through the trauma memory without the person having to 'talk through' the trauma.
The memory is put into context and the brain is able to file it away so it is not always present in the mind.