What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder, which typically develops after being involved in or witnessing traumatic events. Once believed to only affect those involved in war, PTSD can affect anyone.
Of course, feeling fear when facing a scary or potentially dangerous situation is entirely normal. In fact, this fear is essential to our survival. It triggers reactions in the body which aim to save our life if threatened. This fight or flight reaction is natural and works to protect us.
Most people will experience a number of reactions after facing trauma, though will typically recover a short while after the event. For some people, however, these symptoms do not ease. They may feel frightened and stressed, and have flashbacks long after the event, and during regular situations. It's when these symptoms do not disappear and start to hinder everyday life that PTSD may be diagnosed.
Post-traumatic stress disorder affects one in every three people who have a traumatic experience. PTSD can develop immediately after the experience, or it can appear weeks, months, or even years after.
Symptoms of PTSD
In most cases, symptoms of PTSD will develop during the first few weeks after the event. Though, in some cases, there can be a delay of months or years before symptoms appear.
Symptoms will also vary for individuals. Some people will experience long periods of minor, less noticeable symptoms, to then have periods where they are more severe. Others will have constant severe symptoms, affecting their day to day life.
While specific symptoms of PTSD will vary between individuals, there are common symptoms associated with PTSD which generally fall under the following categories.
The most common symptom of PTSD. re-experiencing is when a person re-lives the triggering event. Re-experiencing typically occurs in the form of vivid flashbacks, nightmares, repetitive and distressing images or sensations, and physical sensations, such as pain, sweating and nausea.
Some people will constantly experience negative thoughts about the event, asking themselves questions over and over again. “Why would this happen to me? Should I have stopped it?"
This repeated questioning may prevent them from coming to terms and coping with the event, often leading to feelings of guilt or shame.
Avoidance and Emotional Numbing
Another key symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is actively trying to avoid any reminders of the trauma. This may mean avoiding certain people or places which are reminders of the event, or talking to anyone about the experience.
It’s common for people with PTSD to ignore memories, ‘pushing them out of their mind’ by distracting themselves through other things, like work.
Other people may try to cope with how they’re feeling by trying to switch off completely. Not feeling anything sometimes seems like the easier option. This is known as emotional numbing. Emotional numbing can result in the person becoming isolated and withdrawn. They lose enjoyment in the things they once enjoyed.
PTSD can lead to increased feelings of anxiety and difficulty relaxing. This symptom of more of a state of mind; people may be constantly aware of danger and threat, and be easily startled. This is known as hyperarousal (or feeling ‘on edge’).
Hyperarousal can lead to increased irritability, sleeping problems, anger and difficulty concentrating.
PTSD can have a detrimental effect on a person’s life. As well as the above symptoms, people with PTSD are likely to have other symptoms, related to the condition, such as:
Other mental health problems, including anxiety, depression or phobias.
Physical symptoms, including headaches, chest pains, stomach aches and dizziness.
Self-harming or destructive behaviour, including drug or alcohol misuse.
Without the right knowledge and support, dealing with PTSD can be a very lonely time. The condition can in some cases, lead to relationship breakdowns and work-related problems. If you’re worried, or worried about a loved one, it’s important you seek help. There is plenty of support available for those affected by PTSD and while we know it’s not easy to ask for help, you don’t need to go through this alone.
Causes of PTSD
Anyone can be affected by PTSD. The anxiety disorder can develop after a frightening, life-threatening or distressing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience.
Types of events that may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder include:
serious road accidents
witnessing violent deaths or the unexpected injury or death of a loved one
Who’s at Risk?
While it’s unclear why some people may develop the condition and others will not, there are certain factors thought to affect your chances of developing PTSD. According to the NHS, if you’ve had depression or anxiety you may be more susceptible to developing PTSD after a distressing event.
Other risk factors include having little or no social support after the event, having experienced childhood trauma or if you experience extra stress after the event (the death of a loved one, loss of a job etc.
What is Complex PTSD?
Complex PTSD is a relatively new term, recognised as a condition where the individual will experience some of the symptoms of PTSD, as well as additional symptoms. You may be diagnosed with complex PTSD if you repeatedly experience traumatic situations, such as severe neglect, abuse or violence.
Seeking Help for PTSD
After experiencing a particularly distressing event, it’s normal to feel confused and upset. For most people, these upsetting thoughts will ease after a couple of weeks. If you or your child are still experiencing problems four weeks or so after the event, consider visiting your doctor. They will assess your symptoms and feelings and if necessary, refer you to a mental health specialist.
Treatment for PTSD
The main treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder are medication and/or psychotherapy (talking therapies). Hypnotherapy, or clinical hypnosis, is a solution oriented therapy treatment that works with a person's conscious and subconscious minds to elicit emotional and behavioural change. It has been found to be effective when treating such issues as anxiety, stress, phobias, and post traumatic stress disorder. Of course, everyone is different, and how PTSD affects individuals will vary, so the treatment that works for one person, may not be right for you.
Traumatic events and experiences can be very difficult to deal with, especially on your own. Talking about how you feel, confronting your feelings and seeking professional help can be a very effective way of treating PTSD. It’s also possible for PTSD to be treated many years after the triggering event, which means it’s never too late to seek help.
Talking Treatments for PTSD
There are currently two types of talking treatment recommended by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence.
Trauma-focused CBT is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy, specifically adapted for PTSD. CBT is a talking therapy that focuses on what we think and believe, and how these thoughts affect our behaviour. It aims to teach you the skills needs to cope with difficult situations. It is recommended that you have eight to 12 hourly sessions, with at least one session a week.
EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) is a treatment focused on making rapid eye movements while recalling your experience. The idea behind this is that the effect of the rapid eye movements will be like the way our brain processes memories and experiences when sleeping. EMDR was specifically created as a treatment to help people living with difficult traumatic memories, including those with PTSD.
If you’re not happy with treatment or you don’t think it’s working, it’s important you tell your doctor or therapist. They should offer you a second course of treatment, or a follow-up appointment to discuss what you expected, what you want to gain from therapy and why you think it hasn’t worked.
Medication for PTSD isn’t routinely prescribed as treatment. You may be offered medication if you have depression, are experiencing sleeping problems caused by PTSD or you are unable/unwilling to try psychotherapy. If you are offered medication, it will typically be an antidepressant. While PTSD isn’t the same as depression, it has been found to help.
Some people have found hypnotherapy a helpful tool to cope better with PTSD symptoms. Hypnotherapy is known to be an effective way to process troublesome memories of trauma.
Trauma can cause a person to disconnect from their own internal sense of safety. So, the sooner the emotions are managed, the sooner the person will recover. Hypnotherapy can help you cope with the trauma and learn how to regain a sense of control and normality in your life.
The premise behind hypnotherapy is that is aims to access your unconscious and change the negative thoughts that are holding you back. Using the power of suggestion, hypnotherapy works to promote positive change. The suggestions used will depend on your symptoms and what you wish to gain from your sessions. The hypnotherapist will tailor techniques to you, helping you to manage symptoms and recognise potential triggers, as well as changing the way you react towards them.
Where Can I find a Therapist?
When you’re ready, the first step of your journey will be to find a professional you resonate with. Dr Graeme Senior is a Registered Psychotherapist in private practice, providing face-to-face appointments in Warwick, Queensland, and TeleHealth (video) appointments nationally and internationally.