This is our first post in a series of blog articles about trauma. In this post I will present an overview of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Future posts will discuss in more detail common symptoms of PTSD, details about treatment for PTSD, and frequent issues and concerns that come up surrounding treatment. Stay tuned!
At some point in your life, or the life of someone you love, a traumatic event is likely to occur. But, what exactly is a traumatic event or trauma? We often talk about experiences in life being emotionally traumatic: a breakup, a divorce, losing a job, or the loss of a loved one to natural causes. These are all very distressing life events that most certainly bring the experience of grief, if not depression, anxiety, or trouble adjusting. However, for the purpose of this article and others in regards to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a trauma is considered an exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation. Many people think of “PTSD” as it relates to war veterans, but this is only a small percentage of individuals with PTSD.
The following are examples of types of traumatic experiences that may lead to PTSD:
- Natural disasters (flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake)
- Fire or explosion
- Transportation accident (car accident, boat accident, train wreck, plane crash)
- Serious accident at home, work, or during recreational activity
- Traumatic birth/pregnancy with threat or actual loss of child or life to mother
- Life-threatening illness or injury
- Physical assault (being attacked, hit, slapped, kicked, beaten up, domestic violence)
- Assaulted with a weapon (being shot, stabbed, threatened with a knife, gun, bomb)
- Sexual assault (rape, attempted rape, made to perform any type of sexual act through force or threat)
- Other unwanted or uncomfortable sexual experience
- Captivity (being kidnapped, abducted, held hostage)
- Severe human suffering (famine, plague)
- Sudden violent death (homicide, suicide)
- Sudden accidental death
- Serious injury, harm or death you caused to someone else
- Exposure to toxic substances (dangerous chemicals, radiation)
- Combat or exposure to a war-zone
The exposure to the trauma can come from directly experiencing the event (it happened to you), witnessing the event in person (you saw it happen to someone else), learning that the event happened to a close family member or friend, or being repeatedly exposed to aversive details of the trauma (such as part of your job). Essentially, if it happened to you, you witnessed it (in person or through your job), or you heard about it happening to someone you cared about, you may have experienced a trauma.
It is estimated that almost 90% (9 out of 10) of people will experience a trauma during their lifetime. Many people will experience multiple traumas during the course of their lives. The more trauma someone has experienced in their life, the more likely they are to develop post traumatic stress disorder or other psychological distress and impairment.
The good news, is that many people will naturally recover over time. Recovery, does not mean forgetting. Recovery does not mean that the trauma has not made a significant impact on your life. Recovery is coping effectively with the trauma, with little to no interference/negative impact on your life right now.
A small percentage of people, (5-10%) will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result from the traumatic experience. Women are twice as likely than men to develop PTSD. You are more likely to develop PTSD if the traumatic event was intense or long-lasting, if you or someone you know was injured/killed, or if you did not receive adequate support after the event.
The symptoms of PTSD usually start soon after the traumatic event however it is possible for them to emerge months or years later. Symptoms may come and go or worsen/lessen in severity depending on stress and other ongoing factors in a person’s life.
There are four main symptom areas of PTSD
- Re-experiencing the event: This comes in the form of having distressing memories of the event that disrupt your day, nightmares, flashbacks (feeling like you are re-experiencing the event), and getting very upset with something reminds you of the event.
- Avoidance: Going out of your way to avoid thoughts, memories, feelings, people, places, and things that remind you of the traumatic event.
- Negative beliefs and feelings: Chronic and strong negative feelings of anger, fear, guilt, shame, believing things like “no one can be trusted” or “there is something seriously wrong with me”, blaming yourself for the cause of the traumatic event, and losing pleasure in activities you used to enjoy.
- Hyper-arousal: being alert and on edge; watchful even when there is no reason to be; trouble concentrating; easily startled; insomnia and trouble sleeping
Even though only a small percentage of people will develop PTSD, we know that even having some symptoms of PTSD can still cause problems for people and interfere with their lives. Having PTSD (and symptoms of PTSD) greatly increases your chance of abusing drugs and alcohol. You don’t have to have all the symptoms of PTSD in order to benefit from treatment.
The good news is that the therapeutic treatments available for PTSD are effective. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) have both been widely researched and are excellent forms of talk therapy for the treatment of trauma. I’ll discuss more about these specific types of therapy in upcoming blog articles.
If you or someone you know have experienced a traumatic event and is having problems you may reach out to The National Center for PTSD http://www.ptsd.va.gov/ for more information and help.