Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that is often associated with war trauma, but it does not have to be. It typically results from an intensely distressing event such as an accident, natural disaster, grievous injury, or being met with physical and/or sexual violence.
As the experience of trauma is highly individual in nature, some people may also develop PTSD from events of a “smaller scale” such as a bad breakup, workplace conflicts, or witnessing someone else in pain. It is crucial to recognise that all causes of PTSD are valid, and anyone suffering from PTSD should seek treatment regardless of the source of trauma.
Some people develop PTSD immediately after the traumatic event, while others may only react weeks, months, or years later. Patients with this condition exhibit telltale symptoms that indicate they require medical attention. It is important to learn to spot these signs early on so that you or your loved ones who suffer from the disorder can get the help they need as soon as possible. Here are some common symptoms of PTSD to look out for.
Intrusive Flashbacks Regarding the Event
People suffering from PTSD often get internal reminders of the traumatic event over and over, despite attempts to move on. The reminders can come in the form of intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and recurring nightmares. Often, the episodes are so vivid that they feel as though they are re-experiencing the event as the same intense emotions are elicited. They may break out in cold sweat in the middle of the day or while lying in bed at night, believing that they are in imminent danger.
Strong Reactions to External Reminders
People with PTSD are also prone to reacting strongly to external reminders of the traumatic event. Potential triggers are wide-ranging and can include anything from a sound, a certain phrase, an object, a colour, and so on. For instance, a rape victim may be triggered by something as harmless as the image of a lamp that resembles the one sitting on the perpetrator’s bedside table on the night of the assault. Seeing a similar object is enough to cause the victim to experience a full-on panic attack.
Triggers are highly personal and therefore not easily understood by bystanders who do not have knowledge about the victim’s past. Many trauma survivors would also go out of their way to avoid these external reminders, which can bring great inconvenience to their day-to-day activities.
Tension and Hyper-vigilance
Even with the absence of external reminders, people suffering from PTSD can still be on edge throughout the day. They may feel great anxiety and tension and get easily startled by small changes in their environment. They are also likely to be constantly on the lookout for any potential danger or mishaps. This heightened state of tension and hypervigilance can cause them to feel stressed and even explode in anger at random times. As a result, they can face problems carrying out daily tasks such as focusing at work, eating, or falling asleep.
Shifts in Emotional State and Cognition
People suffering from PTSD develop not just negative thoughts regarding the event itself but also warped beliefs about themselves and others. For instance, a woman who has gotten out of an abusive relationship may view herself as worthless, and deem all men as untrustworthy and dangerous.
This can be expressed through extreme statements like, “I am not good enough to be loved by anyone” or “men are out to get me”. The constant blaming of others and oneself stems from the deep shame and anger regarding what has occurred. When such feelings overwhelm them, they may withdraw completely from loved ones. Patients with the disorder are also less inclined to enjoy activities they used to love and can adopt a general attitude of numbness and emptiness towards life.
If these symptoms apply to you or someone you know, and last more than 4 weeks after the traumatic incident, you are advised to seek help immediately. The medical professional will follow a step-by-step process to arrive at a diagnosis. Typically, a physical exam of medical issues would be performed, followed by a psychological evaluation on the signs and symptoms, before using the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to reach a final diagnosis.
Treatment can differ from person to person, depending on individual conditions and the severity of their symptoms. Below are psychotherapy options that are commonly recommended to patients with PTSD.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a broad umbrella term for a group of psychotherapy practices that helps individuals become aware of their negative beliefs and thought patterns that impact how they act and feel. Individuals are encouraged to question their beliefs and replace them with less extreme and more productive modes of thinking. They then practise using their renewed mindset to solve problems in real life. CBT is used to tackle a diverse range of mental health issues including but not limited to PTSD, addictions, depression and anxiety.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
CPT is a specific type of psychotherapy under Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that directly addresses the problems faced by those suffering from PTSD. Like CBT, CPT tackles the underlying beliefs and thought patterns that influence an individual’s behaviour, but with a focus on the beliefs that have emerged from trauma. More specifically, CPT deals with how the traumatic event influences patients’ perceptions of self-worth, relationships and their level of trust towards themselves and others.
Like the name suggests, exposure therapy is developed to help those suffering from PTSD confront their triggers through safe exposure to external reminders of their trauma. While people with PTSD naturally want to avoid any object, event or situation that can activate their bad memories, this would prove to be more destructive in the long run as avoidance increases their fear of the triggers. Furthermore, it is not realistic to avoid the triggers entirely as they can arise without warning in real life.
In exposure therapy, the therapist would first create a secure environment for the patient to be exposed to his triggers. Gradually, as the patient gets more exposure, he becomes less afraid of the object, event or situation and begins to heal from his irrational fears.
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR seeks to alleviate the patient’s emotional reactions to traumatic memories through the recalling and processing of traumatic memories. The patient is asked to focus on the traumatic flashback while practising guided eye movements that are designed to reduce the psychological impact of those memories. The diversion is believed to reduce the hold that the traumatic past has on the patient.
The treatment methods described above serve as a guide for you to understand therapy methods in brief. You can better decide the type of psychotherapy that is the best fit for your condition with the help of a medical professional and through attendance of trial sessions first.
Where Can You Find a Therapist to Treat PTSD?
A Space Between is a copractice space for mental health therapy activities. Our therapists make use of our conducive rooms for their private counselling and psychotherapy services. Our downtown location is easily accessible to all. We also provide the option of LGBTQ+ friendly mental health practitioners. You can rest assured that each therapist comes with years of experience and expertise to ensure that you are in safe hands.
Check out our therapist directory here to find the right therapist for you and/or your loved ones.
Yimin is open to new experiences and perspectives. She is most passionate about psychology and creative writing and hopes to publish a novel someday.