What is PTSD?
PTSD is as old as humankind and can occur in all people, of any ethnicity, nationality, gender, occupation, culture and at any age.
PTSD is a condition that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic, life-threatening event or serious injury. It’s estimated that 50% of people will experience a trauma at some point in their life. For the majority of people exposed to traumatic events they will experience some short-term distress, but eventually, their trauma fades to a memory – painful, but not destructive. However, around 20% of people who experience a trauma go on to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In the UK, that’s around 6,665,000 people, yet it is still an incredibly misunderstood and often misdiagnosed, stigmatised condition.
There is a second, subtype of PTSD, called Complex PTSD, or C-PTSD. This is usually a result of repeated, or sustained traumas, which presents in a similar way to PTSD, but with some additional symptoms too. For the purposes of this article, when we talk about PTSD, we are also talking about C-PTSD.
How is PTSD caused?
PTSD can affect anyone who has been exposed to a traumatic event such as assault, road traffic accidents, burglary, natural disasters, domestic abuse, acts of terrorism, traumatic childbirth, bereavement, being told you have a life-threatening illness or miscarriage.
If someone is exposed to one of these intensely fearful and traumatic situations, their body and mind ‘suspends’ normal operations and it copes as well as it can in order to survive. This might involve reactions such as ‘freezing to the spot’ or sometimes the opposite, ‘flight away’ from danger.
Until the danger passes, many systems in the body are put on hold or adapted: your digestive system pauses, your muscles may tense up to be ready to flee or fight, your heart rate will increase, pupils dilate and the ‘unimportant’ task of memory creation is put on hold. This means that the mind does not produce a memory for this traumatic event in the ‘normal’ way.
Eventually, when the mind presents the ‘memory’ of the trauma for ‘filing’, or it is triggered by a smell, a place, or a person etc, it does not recognise it as a memory. As it understands, ‘the brain is in the middle of the dangerous event – it is not ‘outside’ looking in at this event, and therefore the entire system is not easily subject to rational control’. These flashbacks are incredibly distressing. Reliving the trauma as if it were happening RIGHT NOW. The elements, such as the facts of what happened, the emotions associated with the trauma and the sensations: touch, taste, sound, vision, movement and smell, can be presented by the mind as real time information.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
In addition to the flashbacks mentioned above, PTSD can cause a variety of life-altering and intrusive symptoms, resulting in substantial distress and disruption of social and occupational functioning, which can cause major problems in relationships and jobs.
The hyper-arousal that often comes with PTSD creates a disproportionate response to stimuli. For example, if snow was to fall from the roof of your home, a ‘typical’ response would be to jump or startle and possibly look around. For someone with PTSD, their reaction is likely to be much more severe: jumping out of their seat, turning fully around or hiding under a table, heart pumping with fists clenched ready to meet an imagined threat. This ‘hyper vigilance’ is exhausting – constantly looking for threats in everything and everyone around you.
Many PTSD sufferers also feel emotionally numb and have trouble communicating with others about the way they feel – this may make them more anxious and irritable.
Quite often the feelings and symptoms of PTSD become so unmanageable and uncomfortable, that the sufferer starts to avoid anything linked to the original trauma which, as you can imagine, can affect day to day life.
What are the treatment options for PTSD?
Just over a decade ago people still thought that PTSD was an incurable condition. However, more recent evidence and research proves it is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred. This means that it is never too late to seek help.
For some the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy. NICE guidance (updated in 2018) recommends trauma-focused psychological treatments such as EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing) and trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These treatments can effectively eliminate all PTSD symptoms in many sufferers.
PTSD UK is the only charity in the UK dedicated to raising awareness of PTSD, it's causes, symptoms and the treatments available, no matter the trauma that caused it. If you’d like to find out more about the condition, what they do or how you can support them, please visit their website: ptsduk.org