What is PTSD?
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder and affects around 1 in 10 individuals. It is a condition that develops after a traumatic experience and affected individuals can experience both psychological and physical distress.
All of us have the ability to process a traumatic encounter. However, sometimes the trauma can be huge (e.g. road traffic accident, experience of abuse, terrorist attack, etc.) or we can be in a vulnerable position (e.g. powerless, immobile, frozen, etc.) when we experience the trauma and this makes it harder to process. Unprocessed trauma can remain active in our system and affect us deeply by changing our view of the world. We can begin to feel threatened when there may be no threat and if left untreated, it can affect our personalities and our relationships.
Symptoms of PTSD
Commonly, people with PTSD have flashbacks and nightmares of the incident. This can be very distressing and cause anxiety and panic attacks. Those suffering with PTSD start avoiding anything that can remind them of the trauma and this can cause huge limitations in daily life. The brain is still stuck in the past (when the trauma happened), so it starts actively looking for threatening situations. This means small sounds can be startling; this is called hypervigilance. Sometimes, the traumatic memories are repressed, which means they are hidden from consciousness.
Another common experience for people with a traumatic history is dissociation. This is a state where people can cut off and zone out. They can become distant from their surroundings and can lose track of time. This is thought to be the coping mechanism by which we keep ourselves safe from trauma, but if it persists after the trauma has ended, it is no longer helpful. Trauma can also manifest as physical symptoms, such as chronic pain or functional neurological symptoms.
The treatment of PTSD is well established and includes medication and psychological therapies. Medication like anti-depressants can help with PTSD and any associated depression or anxiety. Psychological therapies include EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing), which is a powerful and well-researched treatment for trauma and trauma-focused CBT.
Can PTSD ever go away?
It is possible to fully resolve PTSD. However, sometimes the PTSD can become chronic and entrenched and much harder to treat, especially if those affected start using drugs or alcohol to cope. In these cases, treatment needs to be planned, phased, and carried out step by step.