Simply put, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can develop after a person has been exposed to a traumatic event. Common examples of Traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include but are not limited to being attacked (e.g. whether in military combat, on a random and unexpected robbery, or in other circumstances), natural disasters, serious accidents, physical or sexual assault, or witnessing death or serious injury.
Other experiences that may lead to the development of PTSD or Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) include but are not limited to difficulties in childhood or adulthood, such as ongoing neglect or physical abuse, and/or living under conditions of duress for significant periods of time.
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, and others will
develop it after a single incident. In these cases, the experience can trigger a range of reactions and symptoms that persist over time.
The development of PTSD is elaborate and involves various factors such as the severity and duration of the trauma, individual vulnerability factors like genetics or pre-existing emotional conditions, a perceived lack of social support, and the individual’s coping mechanisms. In cases where the trauma overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope or process the experience effectively, PTSD may develop.
When someone is exposed to a traumatic event, their brain and body can go into a state of hyperarousal as part of the fight-or-flight response (more on fight-ot-flight in a separate post).
Individuals with PTSD feel like they are stuck in a loop or trapped in a cycle of reliving the traumatic event. This can manifest as intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, and intense emotional or physical reactions when reminded of the trauma.
Symptoms: The symptoms of PTSD can be categorized into four main clusters:
Intrusion Symptoms: These include intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, and intense distress or physiological reactions when exposed to reminders of the traumatic event.
Avoidance Symptoms: Individuals may avoid people, places, activities, or thoughts that remind them of the trauma. This can lead to social withdrawal and emotional numbing.
Negative Alterations in Cognition and Mood: This cluster includes symptoms like negative beliefs about oneself or others, distorted blame, persistent negative emotions like fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame, diminished interest in activities previously enjoyed, feeling detached from others, and difficulty experiencing positive emotions.
Arousal and Reactivity Symptoms: These symptoms manifest as hypervigilance, irritability, reckless or self-destructive behavior, difficulty concentrating, exaggerated startle response, and sleep disturbances.
Evidence-Based Treatment Options:
Two evidence-based treatment options for PTSD are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a widely used therapeutic approach for treating PTSD. It focuses on helping individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and beliefs related to the traumatic event. Through CBT, individuals learn coping skills to manage distressing emotions and symptoms associated with PTSD. Exposure therapy is a common technique used within CBT for PTSD where individuals gradually confront their fears in a safe environment to reduce avoidance behaviors.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is another evidence-based therapy specifically designed for processing traumatic memories and reducing distress associated with those memories. During EMDR sessions, individuals recall distressing memories while simultaneously focusing on external stimuli such as hand movements or sounds that stimulate bilateral eye movements. This process aims to help reprocess traumatic memories in a way that reduces their emotional intensity.