Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), was a term first coined following the Vietnam war to describe the reaction some veterans were experiencing on return from conflict. It can also be called “shell shock” or “combat stress”. Veterans returning from conflict today can also experience the disorder, and the term very literally describes the trauma that follows the stress of experiencing war.
Some of the common symptoms are:
- Intrusive thoughts or memories
- Nightmares and / or disturbed sleep
- Anger, aggression, sudden outbursts, feeling out of control
- Feeling detached or a sense of “numbness”
- In contrast to this, feeling on “high alert” all the time as though something bad may happen at any moment
- Negative thinking, depression, suicidal thoughts or plans
- Avoidance of anything that may remind you of the trauma
- Physical reactions such as dizziness, sweating, panic attacks
Following its diagnoses after Vietnam, PTSD is now understood to be much a condition that can occur under a much broader set of circumstances. PTSD is a reaction that can occur having either experienced or witnessed anything that the individual found horrifying, stressful or distressing. Meaning PTSD is not something that occurs only if you return from a conflict zone or experience war, but rather can be experienced as the result of being a part of, or witness to, any trauma event. These traumas can include:
- Being attacked in some way
- A bereavement
- Personal assaults such as; sexual assault, rape, mugging, bullying, robbery
- Prolonged abuse
- Surviving or being witness to a terrorist attack
- Seeing someone else hurt or killed
- Being kidnapped or held hostage
- Going through a traumatic birth or witnessing a traumatic birth
- Being a part of a natural disaster such as an earthquake, tsunami or avalanche
A common myth to bust about PTSD are the notions that PTSD is something that “only veterans experience” or “you have to have witnessed a war zone or conflict to get PTSD”. This is not the case. Not only can you experience PTSD as the result of many other traumas other than war, but trauma also exists on a sliding scale. What this means is that many may be experiencing extreme trauma reactions and severe PTSD, whereas someone else may also have a trauma reaction, but the symptoms are much subtler.
For example, the trauma of a break up . . . Experienced in part as a bereavement, can be a form of more subtle trauma. Experiencing an abusive relationship of some form in the present or past can often have PTSD effects. The same with experiencing the death of someone you loved, or being diagnosed with an illness . . . To name but a few.
The impact of these experiences can leave an individual in post-traumatic shock, but the level of the shock can very. For example, you may have severe flashbacks, nightmares and phobic reactions and the PTSD is severe and very apparent. However, you may experience the trauma in a milder way, with a sense of “numbness” for example, a sense of disturbed sleep or a knowledge that your anxiety levels have risen but you don’t know why.
It is important to note that everyone experiences things differently. What one individual will find traumatic, another will not. For example, it could be that you witness a car accident and remain essentially unaffected, whereas the death of a loved one leaves you deeply traumatised. It could be that another individual will cope well with such a loss, but is badly impacted by witnessing the car accident.
In some cases, it could be there is a “cumulative effect” over time of certain occurrences in life which, eventually build to produce traumatic responses. This means there is no “one event” you can point your finger to, but rather a series of incidences that have built to produce a trauma response.
Everybody is different, and what is defined as traumatic, and the level at which someone will experience post-trauma reactions, will be different for each person. What will be the case for one person, will not be the same case for another.
Therapy and PTSD
It is common in the therapy room to work with individuals who may be experiencing trauma, but are unaware of the fact.
Due to being considered by many as “everyday problems” clients often do not make the connection between what they have experienced and the fact that they are reacting to a trauma. It is not uncommon as a therapist to see clients begin therapy in a mild form of traumatic response to certain events that are either going on or have occurred in their lives.
Where therapy can be useful is in pointing out the connection between life events and traumatic responses.
Often just in naming trauma and the symptoms it provokes, can provide a client with a sense of “unburdening” that comes through the naming, exploring and understanding of trauma and its effects. Something that was once unknown and unnamed and therefore had a sense of “power” suddenly becomes known. As a result, it begins to lose any sense of power or hold it may have felt it had over you.
In doing this, one can begin to process what has happened, to turn the trauma from a current problem into a memory. Working with trauma therapeutically also means beginning to look at being kind to oneself, self-care and practical tools to cope with certain symptoms.
What therapy will never do is:
- Rush you. You will explore the traumatic event(s) in your own time and at a speed that feels comfortable for you
- Seek to re-traumatise you
- Leave you with feelings that you do not know how to manage or cope with.