According to a recent study, three out of 100 people in the UK have screened positive for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, but the real number is estimated to be higher than that, mostly because people have an incomplete understanding of how PTSD manifests and often downplay symptoms and delay seeking treatment. Commonly associated with former members of the military, PTSD can actually affect all categories of the population, and the first signs can appear months or years after a traumatic event. Sometimes, even pinpointing the exact place where your fears come from can be difficult, which makes professional support all the more important. 

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and who can develop it?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder that appears after witnessing or being involved in a threatening event that causes shock, fear, helplessness, and horror. The most common example given in popular culture is that of veterans who have witnessed the horrors of war, but there are many other examples of traumatic events that can trigger PTSD, such as accidents, assaults, or seeing someone killed. However, there are also cases when the event wasn’t that severe. 

 

PTSD can affect anyone, regardless of age, but certain categories of people are more prone to developing it. Risk factors include:

 

  • Occupations that involve life-or-death situations. People who work in the military are extremely likely to develop PTSD, but so do firefighters, police officers and photojournalists who work in war-affected areas. At present, researchers are concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to skyrocketing PTSD rates among healthcare professionals because they have been exposed to even more death than usual. 
  • Being involved in a car crash, terrorist attack, or natural disaster. 
  • Being a rape victim or witnessing sexual assault. 
  • Previous history of mental health disorders. 
  • Being a woman. Statistically, females are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men. 
  • Being an ethnic minority, coming from a poor background, or not having access to education. 

Symptoms of PTSD 

First of all, it’s important to point out that feeling upset or distressed is a completely normal reaction after a traumatic event. What happened might have affected your life and values going forward, and you should allow yourself enough time to process what happened. However, if stress persists for more than a few months, that may indicate PTSD. 

 

Signs and symptoms include: 

 

  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep.
  • Recurring nightmares 
  • Intrusive memories or vivid flashbacks of the event that cause you emotional distress
  • Being more vigilant than you were before the event (hypervigilance)
  • Being startled easier 
  • Irritability or aggressiveness
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Avoiding conversations, thoughts, and situations that remind you of the traumatic event 
  • Physical symptoms such as racing heartbeat, trembling, sweating, and nausea. These symptoms appear because people with PTSD produce cortisol and adrenaline even after they are no longer in danger, and their bodies remain in the “fight, flight, or freeze” situation.  

At the same time, PTSD can also induce feelings of guilt and shame. For example, many people who were involved in terrorist attacks or natural disasters often develop survivor’s guilt, where they blame themselves for what happened. People who have PTSD can also feel alone and isolated. If you have been struggling with PTSD for a long time, you may feel that no one understands you or that you can’t trust anyone. Moreover, you may feel that your general wellness level has decreased, that you find it difficult to look after yourself, make decisions, and enjoy daily life. 

 

What makes PTSD harder to spot without professional help is that symptoms don’t always appear soon after the traumatic event. Many people are under the impression that they feel fine – or at least, that they have a good handle on things given the situation – only to experience anxiety symptoms after a few months. On average, PTSD symptoms appear three months after the traumatic event, but that’s not always the case. For example, there’s Delayed-Onset PTSD, where symptoms can appear six months after the event or later. 

 

Childhood trauma can also be particularly tricky to spot because it can leak into adulthood without you recognising it, and causing symptoms such as heightened anxiety, emotional detachment, anger, shame, and guilt. PTSD in children is also more complicated because the trauma may not always be caused by one traumatic event, but also by a longer period of emotional abuse, neglect, or bullying.  

PTSD therapy options 

It is entirely possible to experience a scary, traumatic event and be able to overcome it on your own. However, this doesn’t always happen, and when the symptoms persist for more than a few months, therapy for PTSD can help you manage these symptoms, develop healthy ways to cope, and regain control over your life. 

 

Therapy won’t erase all memories of the event or make it seem pleasant, but it will help you to cope with it in a healthy way, so that the memory of it doesn’t become debilitating. Therapy for PTSD can cover various approaches: 

 

  • Talking therapy: this can help you manage general anxiety symptoms, and it can be recommended in different formats, such as counselling, individual or group therapy. 
  • Encouraging positive lifestyle changes. Because one of the side-effects of PTSD is difficulty looking after yourself, your therapist will encourage you to have a balanced diet, stay physically active, find a hobby, or connect with other people who have gone through similar experiences. 
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the idea that some ways of thinking can trigger issues such as PTSD, so by changing the associations between events and responses, you can manage the symptoms and process traumatic events. 
  • Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a newer approach in the treatment of PTSD, but it has shown promising effects so far. During an EMDR session, your therapist will ask you to follow their fingers with your eyes, while recalling parts of the traumatic events. In time, this is believed to lessen the impact of unpleasant memories. 
  • Medication such as diazepam and Benzodiazepines may be prescribed in the short term to manage anxiety symptoms. 

Oftentimes, people who have PTSD also struggle with additional mental health issues such as depression, low self-esteem, panic attacks, and addiction, so therapy for PTSD can involve a broader approach that covers these issues too. 

 

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