What Is PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), war-shock, or shellshock was once thought to be a condition only caused by war. Yet, mental health experts found that this condition can also be a direct result of physical and emotional abuse as well as other traumatic life experiences. A trauma can be any event that is or is perceived to be threatening to one’s life or limb, such as witnessing violence to or the violent death of another, or learning about violence to or the violent death of a relative or close associate. PTSD can also arise from a series of traumas or multiple traumas that one might handle normally if they were one isolated event.
We can think of PTSD, not as a mental illness, per se, but as serious injury that has not been able to heal. Up to several hours or weeks after a traumatic event, the symptoms associated with PTSD, while intense, disturbing and unpleasant, are considered to be normal reactions to an injury that will gradually begin to diminish as the wounds heal. During this time the person is said to be suffering from an acute stress reaction. Like any serious injury, acute stress prevents us from functioning at our best for a while, but if the symptoms persist for months or years after the event, then they are not part of a usual healing process. At that point the injury has become chronic and it becomes what is called PTSD.
Common symptoms one suffers after a traumatic event can be grouped into three types:
1. Reliving the event
- Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Bad dreams or nightmares
- Frightening thoughts.
Re-experiencing symptoms can cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They may come on as the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that remind one of the event(s) can trigger a flashback, causing the person to rubber band back to a time and place of traumatic event, experiencing it again in detail with the physical and emotional reactions and intensity of that moment itself, as if it were happening in real time. The person may be “trapped there” until the symptoms releases them back to awareness of the present.
2. Avoiding of things related to the event
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
- Avoiding thoughts, conversations or feelings reminiscent of the traumatic memories.
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
- Losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable
- Blocking out or having trouble remembering the dangerous event.
Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car. Or someone who grew up in a war-torn country may avoid going to loud, noisy events.
3. Suffering emotional and physical reactions:
- Having excessive emotions, i.e. crying, having angry outbursts
- Being easily startled
- Feeling anxious, stressed, irritable, jumpy, tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping or eating
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased blood pressure and heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Moderate of severe muscle tension
- Nausea or diarrhea
Hyper arousal symptoms tend to be constant, always occurring, not only when triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event(s).
As mentioned above it’s natural to have some of these symptoms after experiencing a dangerous event. Sometimes these symptoms can be very serious but will go away after a few weeks. Again that is an acute stress reaction or ASD. But when the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months but untreated PTSD can become a devastating, horrifying chronic life-long problem.
What Is the Outlook for People With PTSD?
Recovery from PTSD is a gradual and ongoing process. It was once thought that symptoms of PTSD seldom disappear completely, but there are now proven counseling approaches that can not only reduce but in some cases even eliminate these symptoms. These approaches include what is call Emotional Reconsolidation, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Time Perspective and Integrated Grief and Trauma Therapy
Can PTSD Be Prevented?
Some studies suggest that early intervention with people who have suffered a trauma may reduce some of the symptoms of PTSD or prevent it all together.
How Can Love Ones Help?
Living with a loved one who is suffering from PTSD can be confusing and difficult at times, in part because it is painful to see someone you love in so much pain, but also because you may be at a loss of how to respond. Here are some do’s and don’ts will help both of you:
Understand that your loved- one is suffering from an injury, so do not take it personally.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious injury. It is not about you. It is about their fear. It is about their anxiety. It is about their pain. Not you. Once you accept this, it will be easier to respond to PTSD like you would to any other serious injury someone is coping with. Understanding this does not make the problems (or inexplicable behaviors) go away. But it can keep your feelings and your relationship from being hurt unnecessarily. PTSD symptoms are not something they can just ‘snap out of.” They can’t just cheer up and be happy or just relax. Asking them to do this makes them feel confused and disappointed they cannot meet expectations that seem so simple to you.
Consider, even if your love-one had something as minor as the flu or a sprained ankle, you wouldn’t expect them to be all cheerful and chatty. You might bring them a box of tissues or some orange juice, get a soft pillow to elevate their foot or bring them their meds when it’s timeYou’d want to keep them company if that’s what they wanted. You’d let them rest if they need to. You wouldn’t expect them to perform up to par all the time or make additional demands on them that seem beyond their ability to cope. And, of course you would, encourage them to get treatment, even if they might resist at first.
Understanding that your loved one is suffering from a serious illness does not mean you have to indulge their every whim or accept unhealthy behavior. Setting practical boundaries will help both you and your loved one. For example:
- Don’t accept physical or verbal abuse of any kind. And of course so not engage in such behavior yourself out of frustration.
- Don’t do things for them that they can and want to do themselves. They are not invalids. They are still as capable and competent as it possible for them at the time.
Do not expect too much
Remember your loved one is often struggling to get through the day without breaking down, blowing up or drinking too much. To whatever extent they are going about their life, getting to their appointments and taking their medications properly, this is good.
This may mean you’ll need a support network of your own, because your loved one has all they can handle on their plate doing what they can do. PTSD is taking a lot and possibly even all their energy to just to cope. You might have to put more into your relationship than you will get back , at least for a while. When they acknowledge how much they appreciate your support, this is the precious gift and a sign of healing. Keep in mind, a person with PTSD hates having to deal with it. They very much want to be a whole healthy person and are trying to do all they can.
Do not be critical
If your loved one needs to talk about the trauma’s they’ve endured, it may be painful to hear, but reliving the horror over and over as they are is far was worse. In fact if they are talking about it this is much better than burying it and trying to pretend everything is fine, because it is not. Either reliving in silence or burying it is making them worse. It is a poison that’s eating away at them. Talking about their fears is like washing out an infected cut. It stings, it burns, it grosses out people, but it is the only way to get rid of the poison.
The greatest need for someone with PTSD is to tell about what happened. Their greatest fear is that if they tell, they will lose your love. You probably won’t understand what it was like and your loved-one may have done things you both know are wrong or not the best. But they fear being judged. They have already lost a big part of themselves to this trauma. They can’t stand to lose you, too.
It takes a great deal of courage to talk about the traumas that cause PTSD. So never push or press a loved one to talk about their trauma unless they want to. When they want to talk listen, and don’t judge. If they are repeatedly reliving an event or concern or ruminating about aspects of the incident(s), listen but gently suggest the importance of speaking with their counselor about it This is the person you love, they have been hurt, big time, and are trying to piece their wounded life back together. In time, especially with treatment, they will see what have happened more clearly and make amends if necessary. But when the time is right, the need is to tell someone about it and not be rejected, judged or advised.
This is may seem impossible when someone is in the throes of PTSD – but it is absolutely essential whenever possible. While it’s important not to insist that your loved love “cheer up and have some fun,” look for chances to find out what you would both really enjoy and could share pleasantly together. Watch a silly movie together. Get together with friends Walk in nature. Enjoy your favorite foods. Play with your pets. Remember good times you’ve had together and take any chance to laugh together. Laughter is healing. So is your love for each other.
Get support and help for yourself
Living with someone who has a serious illness is never easy, so if sometimes you feel you’re getting to your wits end, reach out for support and get the help you need. Most important, don’t take your loved one’s fears on yourself and at all costs avoid the pull of turning to substance abuse. If it becomes too difficult seek counseling for yourself too.
If you believe you or someone you love is suffering from PTSD and would like to seeking counseling, contact me.
Adapted in part from WebMD.com, NIMH.NIH.gov and other authoritative sources available upon request.