A Blog For Those Affected By Environmental And Invisible Illnesses Written By Fellow Survivors
Dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Helpful Guide
Traumatic experiences and events often leave a lasting impression. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of army veterans who have seen the battlefield first hand and often have difficulties coming back from those experiences.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a mental health disorder that some people develop after experiencing a traumatic or tragic event. The severity of the trauma experienced which caused sufferers to be emotionally unsteady is the lead cause for the disorder’s development.
Most people associate the disorder with wars and violent crimes (such as rape or attempted murder) - supported by the fact that the biggest number of male sufferers are former soldiers.
The negative effects of military combat on the mental health of individuals fighting front line are in no way news. The US Department of Veteran Affairs offers thorough history of PTSD.
The medical field’s attempt to address the problems military veterans face after returning home date back to the US Civil War (1861-1865) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).
After World War I ended, symptoms, such as panic and insomnia, now attributed to PTSD became known as “shell shock” and were thought to be hidden brain damage caused by explosions of artillery shells. After the discovery that this was also present in soldiers who were not near these explosion, that belief changed.
At the time the treatment amounted to a few days of rest before the return to the battlefield. In Europe, hydrotherapy, electrotherapy and hypnosis were used to treat the more severe cases.
Soon after World War I came World War II, with the same symptoms displayed by the soldiers. The term shell shocked was now replaced by CSR or combat stress reaction, knows as “battle fatigue” amongst the population.
In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) created the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which contained “gross stress reaction”: a diagnosis appropriate for people with relatively normal behaviors and who displayed symptoms of suffering traumatic events. The issue with this diagnosis was the assumption that the treatment would last no longer than six months, after which it could no longer be classified as such.
The next edition of the manual DSM-II, published in 1968, no longer had the term “gross stress reaction”, but it did involve a diagnosis by the name of “adjustment reaction to adult life”. The new diagnosis was meant for three situations: unwanted pregnancy with suicidal thoughts, fear linked to military combat and Ganser syndrome in prisoners facing a death sentence.
Finally, in the third edition DSM-III post-traumatic stress disorder was added and a link between trauma of war and veteran life were clearly established. Continuing research has shed further light on the disorder, with the involvement of war veterans, sexual trauma survivors and Holocaust survivors.
As of the publication of DSM-V PTSD is classified in a new category of ‘Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders’.
It needs to be said that different individuals have different nervous systems and stress tolerance, which means that the development of PTSD can differ from one person to the other. Even though the likelihood of developing PTSD is higher in the days and weeks following the event, it can be triggered even months and years later.
Sometimes symptoms appear seemingly without any cause and other times they are triggered by a reminder of the traumatic event – a sound, a picture, a smell.
There are, however, four main types of symptoms PTSD sufferers experience:
Reliving the Traumatic Event (Re-Experiencing or Intrusion)
- Emotionally upsetting memories of the event
- Nightmares (of the event or other things)
- Experiencing extreme distress when reminded of what happened
- Intense physical reactions to reminders (such as nausea, sweating, difficulty breathing)
Avoidance of Reminders and Numbing of Senses
- Avoiding places, people, thoughts and feelings reminding you of the experience
- Not being able to remember important aspects of the trauma
- Losing interest in life
- Feelings of detachment
- Feeling of isolation and difficulty connecting to others
- Belief in the ‘limited future’ (when you are expecting to die soon and are not expecting to achieve any life milestones)
Negative Changes to Feelings and Beliefs
- Experiencing feelings of guilt and shame
- Feeling of isolation
- Developing mistrust and belief that you were betrayed
- Having a hard time focusing and remembering
- Becoming depressed and developing feelings of hopelessness
- Trouble sleeping
- Expressing irritability
- Angry outbursts
- Developing hypervigilance (expecting an attack at all times and becoming hyper-aware of your surroundings)
- Becoming easily startled
- Expressing aggressive and self-destructive behavior
If you or your loved one is experiencing the symptoms of PTSD it’s vital to find help as soon as possible. The sooner the issue is addressed and the PTSD treated, the easier it will be to overcome.
Ignoring the symptoms will do you no good – they will continue to grow more aggressive until you are forced to face them, and in the meantime they will have a detrimental effect on your ability to function and close relationships.
The main goal for PTSD treatments is to help deal with the experienced trauma and relieve the symptoms in the process.
Treatment with a therapist will focus on the emotions you’ve feel during the transpiring of the traumatic experience and with their help you will work through your feelings about the experience, through your guilt and learn coping mechanisms so that PTSD symptoms don’t take over your life.
Here are some of the types of PTSD treatments:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Focused on the experienced trauma, this type of therapy gradually exposes sufferers to reminders of the trauma, with the goal of replacing distorted thoughts with more balanced ones. Therapists encourage patients to reevaluate thinking patterns in order to help them reduce negative thinking and lower their expectations of a negative outcome. The goal is to train the brain into accepting more effective and balanced thinking patterns.
The exposure to reminders is done in a controlled environment and with help of meticulous planning. Its aim is to return the feeling of self-confidence and sense of control to the patient, as well as to discourage avoidance and numbing behaviors.
- Family Therapy
Aimed at the whole family, this type of therapy focuses on fostering understanding of what the sufferer’s going through by all the family members. It’s particularly good for alleviating some of the tension and relationship strain caused by PTSD symptoms.
It encourages open communication, allowing everyone a safe place for expressing their emotions.
While medication helps alleviate some of the symptoms connected to PTSD, such as depression, it cannot really be used to treat the root causes of the disorder, so it needs to be combined with other treatments.
In general, overcoming PTSD is an on-going process and progress is gradual.
There is a need for professional treatment in order to alleviate all symptoms of PTSD, but there are some things you can do for yourself in order to put yourself in a more open position for starting the healing process.
- Reclaim Your Power
Helplessness is one of the driving factors of PTSD. Trauma leaves you emotionally raw and vulnerable. But it is important to remind yourself that you can pull through anything.
Challenge your every day routine; spend some time volunteering, help out a friend in need or organize a barbeque for your family. Then remind yourself- you did this, you brightened up somebody’s day. Positive action is a powerful drug.
Depression is difficult to overcome and your body will need all the endorphins it can get in order to get past the haze caused by this particular symptom. Focus on your body’s movements and start exercising a bit- it will help you feel better about yourself and relieve some of the stress you are feeling.
- Reach Out
Spending time with family and friends is always helpful, but sometimes you need someone who really understands what you went through. Join a PTSD support group and surround yourself with people who know what it’s like. You don’t have to talk about your trauma immediately, but understand that you are part of a community and are not alone.
- Work on Staying Healthy
Dealing with PTSD is a process, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s easier to manage the symptoms if your body is healthy. Eat a balanced and healthy diet, and try out relaxation techniques; get a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night and avoid mind-altering substances.
Remember that post-traumatic stress disorder is a perfectly normal response to an abnormal situation you were put in and that experiencing any of these symptoms does not make you weak or unstable – it makes you human, with perfectly valid feelings and emotional responses.
Seeking treatment is the best thing you can do for yourself and it will help you achieve your long-term goals and lead a healthy and accomplished life.