You jump out of your skin if you hear a loud noise. You are angered easily or sad, feel cut off from people around you. You have trouble sleeping or nightmares. Worst of all, perhaps you experience these symptoms when least expected, drawing unwanted attention, and you feel embarrassed and very much alone. But you are not alone. Millions of people suffer from a disorder called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD sometimes feels like an invisible illness; to others, you may seem fine, but in reality, you are battling symptoms that make it difficult to have meaningful relationships, satisfying careers, and to reach your goals in life. It’s possible that you or someone you already know suffers from these symptoms. Maybe it’s a family member, a friend, or even yourself.
As coronavirus sweeps through the nation, threatening our health and financial security, it may not only exacerbate the symptoms of those currently living with PTSD but also traumatize a new group of individuals and their families. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 7% percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. However, a large number of individuals will go undiagnosed and untreated. This past week included PTSD awareness day, and we here at Zackson Psychology Group want to commemorate the strength and courage of those living with PTSD and raise awareness to increase empathy, understanding, and hope.
A Brief History of PTSD
PTSD is a disorder that is triggered by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. Historically, the psychological problems of soldiers returning from war (the American civil war, World War I, World War II, and the Korean war) were called “soldier’s heart,” “shell shock,” “combat fatigue,” or “Post Vietnam syndrome.” Those who served in combat would come home feeling distressed and anxious, suffering from flashbacks, nightmares, and a sense of detachment that interfered with their daily lives. In 1980, PTSD was officially recognized as a distinct diagnosis and added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). PTSD applies not only to soldiers but also to millions of people who have survived or witnessed assaults, natural disasters, illness, and other traumatic events.
What is PTSD?
PTSD occurs when the brain experiences events that overwhelm our capacities to respond. It affects millions of people, at every age, who suffer in silence. They may feel anxious, isolated, and as if no one understands them. The experience can be anything from a pandemic, hurricane, terrorist attack, sexual assault, to learning that you or a loved one has a life-threatening illness. Sometimes an event from childhood, such as being bullied by one’s peers or disparaged by one’s parent, may also be traumatizing and leave residual effects. The effect of trauma can wreak havoc on our lives, causing anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, addiction, and anger issues. In essence, PTSD is the body continuing to defend against a threat that belongs in the past. When the traumatized brain thinks about the trauma, the person may feel like they are experiencing the strong emotions and physical sensations associated with it. These weighty feelings may be well hidden by highly functioning individuals.
If you are like many of my clients, you have suffered something traumatic and want to know how to get over the painful experience. There are some ways to minimize the impact of trauma (practicing mindfulness, managing stress levels, strategizing how to feel better). However, finding a way to heal and ultimately move on with your life can be a great challenge. Getting treatment if you have PTSD is crucial because this disorder does not go away by itself. Unlike the temporary stress symptoms that occur in life, PTSD involves psychological changes that cause the toxic memories of trauma to remain strong instead of fading. As a result, those with PTSD can become trapped in their trauma—unable to process what happened and move on with their lives. This can, in turn, lead to broken relationships, stunted careers, addiction issues, and other new traumas. Furthermore, research has shown that unresolved trauma in adults can be passed on to their children.
The good news is that PTSD is highly treatable, and the vast majority of people who seek treatment gain freedom and control of their lives again. As our understanding of PTSD has evolved, a new arsenal of effective treatment options has been developed to help those experiencing the effects of trauma. These include but are not limited to Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Mindfulness Meditation. The most important factor is to restore a sense of control, improve coping skills, and increase resilience to lay the trauma to rest and grow from the experience.