Traumatic events, whether it’s a large-scale occurrence such as a war or more personal such as a mugging or assault, can leave an individual feeling vulnerable. Unfortunately, for many people, the distress lasts long after the incident or circumstance is resolved. Months or even years later, the individual may be easily triggered by places, noises or events, making it difficult to live a normal life.
Fortunately, an individual’s life doesn’t have to be defined by their trauma. With professional help, it’s possible to get back to normal after a traumatic event.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a psychiatric stress disorder that some people develop following a traumatic event. While it’s commonly associated with combat veterans, anyone may develop PTSD after experiencing a significant event, especially one in which their life or the life of someone they love was at risk. This may include situations such as a car accident, surviving an active shooter in a public location, ongoing domestic violence, racially or ethnically motivated violence, pregnancy loss, or the death of a loved one.
The causes and symptoms of PTSD are unique to the individual, but in general, there are three categories of PTSD, each of which requires different treatment methods.
- Uncomplicated PTSD: This type of PTSD stems from one traumatic event. Those experiencing uncomplicated PTSD may experience flashbacks of the events, irritability and mood changes.
- Complex PTSD: Complex PTSD, or cPTSD, is caused by multiple traumatic events, such as domestic violence or repeated exposure to war. Individuals with this form of PTSD may be more likely to have behavioral issues such as substance abuse, impulsivity or aggression.
- Comorbid PTSD: About four out of five people with PTSD have at least one other disorder, such as substance abuse, depression or an anxiety disorder. This often occurs when the individual attempts to self-treat their PTSD.
How PTSD Interferes with Everyday Life
PTSD can be very disruptive, making it difficult for the individual to carry out day-to-day activities, maintain steady employment and relate to family and friends. While most people experience symptoms of PTSD within two weeks of the trauma, symptoms can crop up months or even years later. In some cases, PTSD mirrors other disorders such as depression or anxiety, making it challenging to recognize and diagnose.
Everyone’s experience with PTSD is as unique as their trauma and other factors personal to them. However, there are a few common symptoms that many with PTSD share.
Whether memories of the trauma are conscious or subconscious, they can bother the individual for years after the situation has resolved. For some, these memories may manifest as nightmares or, during the day, as flashbacks. Memories of the trauma can be very upsetting and cause feelings of fear, guilt, anxiety or general unease. They may also bring physical symptoms including gastrointestinal disorders, panic attacks, headaches, unhealthy sleep patterns and heart palpitations.
After a traumatic event, it’s normal to want to move forward and keep from reliving the intense fear and dread of the moment. Avoidance is among the most common symptoms of PTSD, and it can look different in each person.
Along with trying to not think about the event, many people actively avoid certain situations connected to the trauma. For example, someone who was involved in a serious car accident may avoid driving in certain weather conditions or even driving altogether. Similarly, someone who was physically assaulted may steer clear of certain places. They may also avoid certain people, people who remind them of an abuser, or even people in general.
When someone is experiencing PTSD, they may live in a state of hyperarousal, which can lead to changes in their behavior. Even if the event or situation was resolved months or years ago, their body may still act as though it’s their current reality.
Because the individual is already on heightened alert, they may overreact to stressors or everyday occurrences. For example, combat veterans or those involved in an active shooter situation may experience a strong physical reaction to the sound of fireworks or a car backfiring. Children who experienced abuse may have difficulty sleeping or concentrating.
This heightened state of arousal can cause behavioral changes such as irritability, angry outbursts, self-destructive or risky behaviors and constant anxiety.
Not everyone with PTSD experiences flashbacks or nightmares or is in an ongoing fight-or-flight mode. For some, symptoms are more subtle, including mood swings seemingly unrelated to the event or circumstance. Some people lose interest in hobbies and activities they used to enjoy, while others feel a constant deep sense of shame and guilt. They may also feel hopeless, disconnected and generally negative about themselves and others. This may make it difficult to maintain close connections with friends and family.
Best Treatment Options for PTSD: Is PTSD Curable?
As is the case with most mental illnesses, PTSD isn’t considered curable, but it is treatable. The individual can learn to cope with the symptoms, reframe their experiences and live a happy, healthy life with minimal disruptions. Treatment plans vary from one person to the next depending on their experiences, symptoms and goals and may include a combination of multiple interventions.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a classic type of talk therapy that explores the relationships between thoughts, behaviors and feelings. It’s based on the theory that changing one of these domains can have a ripple effect and cause changes in other areas. For example, helping an individual reframe an experience and think about it in a more constructive way can lead to improved emotional regulation and healthier behaviors.
Those with PTSD may benefit from cognitive processing therapy, a form of CBT that centers on challenging unhelpful beliefs regarding the trauma. It highlights why the event was traumatic and why it continues to affect the individual’s life. It can help individuals understand why they’re “stuck” and how to move forward. The goal of this form of therapy is to help the individual develop a new, more accurate understanding of the event so that it has a lesser impact on their current life.
While many with PTSD work hard to avoid anything that triggers memories of the trauma, reliving it may be important for helping them move forward. Exposure therapy uses images, videos and virtual reality programming to recreate the traumatic event. Over time, by facing what they want to avoid, the individual learns that trauma-related memories and triggers aren’t dangerous and don’t need to be avoided.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy
EDMR is based on the theory that PTSD is the result of not appropriately processing a trauma. With this type of therapy, the individual briefly focuses on the traumatic memory while experiencing alternating stimuli, typically eye movement. The goal is to reduce the intensity of the memory and the emotions linked to it.
Group therapy is an essential part of many treatment programs. It provides individuals with a safe, structured environment for sharing their experiences with others facing similar traumas. During group therapy sessions, participants can get feedback on their experience, PTSD symptoms and coping methods and gain insight.
What Recovery from PTSD Looks Like
These therapies, along with support from friends and family, healthy lifestyle choices, participating in support groups, and staying away from destructive coping mechanisms, can help those with PTSD recover.
Someone who’s in recovery for PTSD is learning to accept and understand what happened to them and how it’s affected their life. They’re successfully progressing through their recovery program with help from a professional mental health care provider, and they’re learning and integrating skills that help them cope with difficult memories.
Even when someone has been in PTSD recovery for a long time, they can still experience symptoms or significant traumas or stressors that may trigger old memories. However, with time and professional treatment, someone with PTSD may experience resolution of their symptoms, better relationships with friends and family, and normal life.