You’re not born with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but it is something you might live with for the rest of your life. By the time it was formally introduced into the psychological field in around 1980, doctors had been noticing signs of struggle for decades among veterans to rehabilitate themselves into daily life. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition)—its most recent edition—now classifies PTSD in its own category of stress and trauma disorders. Although there is much more knowledge about this disorder now, there is still much that is unknown, especially among the general public. Let’s take a look at what’s fact and what’s fiction:
Some of the most common myths about PTSD are the following:
1. PTSD is only existent among war veterans.
2. PTSD will present itself immediately following the onset of the trauma
3. You have to experience trauma yourself in order to be traumatized.
4. Having PTSD means you are “weak” and just need to “get over it.”
Clearly, there are many misconceptions about PTSD. To fully understand the illness, we must therefore put aside everything we think we know, and focus on the facts.
PTSD is a complicated disorder that is characterized by several (at least four, according to the DSM-5), mostly anxiety-related, symptoms.
It’s important to note that this illness, aside from what stigma may have you believe, is an absolutely normal reaction to an overwhelming event. In this sense, PTSD can be properly defined as a physiological response to experiencing, or learning of, a traumatic event. Such an event can range from experience in combat, to sexual assault, to child abuse, to a natural disaster, just to name a few.
One thing that everyone who suffers from PTSD has in common is that this event must be experienced in real life rather than witnessed through media (computer, television, etc.). Basically, PTSD is results from your brain struggling to process this shocking event and, accordingly to either place it into long-term memory, or forget it altogether as would be the case with other, non-traumatic events.
Although we understand how and why this disorder presents itself, it is impossible to predict who will develop it. For example, while millions were affected by the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, not every single person developed PTSD. Everyone’s body and mind react differently to stressful situations, and speculation can only get us so far.
But despite this lack of knowledge we can still help those suffering by understanding the primary aspects of the illness. Four main components classify PTSD: intrusion, avoidance, negative cognitions, and arousal and reactivity.
Intrusion can present itself in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or recurring images of the traumatic event. These images don’t necessarily have to be of the event itself, but can also be reminders of the event, such as details about the environment where the event took place or even the faces of the individuals involved.
Avoidance involves staying away from the scene of the event or reminders of that event. For instance, you might feel the need to avoid people who are connected to the event in some way, even if they weren’t directly involved in the occurrence. In the case of an assault, you might seek to avoid friends of your assailant.
Negative cognitions refer to thoughts of detachment, shame, anger, and depression. Often, people suffering from PTSD feel immensely guilty, and end up blaming themselves for their trauma or convincing themselves that if only they had done something differently, there would be a different outcome. They might also feel frustrated. After all, constantly battling with these types of emotions is draining in itself. They might be angry at themselves for not being able to let go, or not being able to keep these moods away. Although it’s a daunting condition to deal with, it is imperative that we all understand this is not the result of someone being “weak.” It is, simply put, the result of being stuck in these cognitions.
Finally, aggression and overdramatic reactions to being scared or startled constitute arousal and reactivity. People suffering from PTSD do not intend to react so strongly to seemingly innocent acts, but they can’t help it. It’s part of their overwhelming caution and ingrained fear that they can’t escape from. All these symptoms together must exist in a person for at least one month before it can be classified at PTSD.
So, if you know someone suffering from PTSD, what can you do to help? It’s often hard for family and loved ones to accept this condition for what it is, and it may be frustrating to tend to a seemingly endless illness. I cannot stress enough, however, how important it is to be patient, kind, and accepting during this tough time. Sufferers may act distant or disconnected, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want or need your help. They may have trouble being intimate or doing activities with others that they once enjoyed doing. The most you can do is offer your love, support, and encouragement toward recovery.
The best thing for a person with PTSD to do is see a specialist. Therapy may sound daunting, but with the right type(s), it can be truly beneficial.
Most often, experts suggest some type of cognitive-behavioral therapy, during which the survivor is taught how to better understand the ways their thoughts are affecting them and, in turn, what they can do to replace these negative thoughts with others. Together, the therapist and patient work on coping strategies, set goals, and aim for reintegration back into their lifestyle.
Therapists might also recommend exposure therapy, which involves working to make survivors more comfortable with accepting their past. Exposure methods include visiting the site of trauma, or facing the person who violated them. This therapy can last up to six months, and sometimes longer.
An alternative to these treatments would be medication for depression and anxiety, such as Prozac and Zoloft. However, specialists usually recommend a combination of therapy and medication to achieve maximum results and rarely suggest taking medication alone.