Most of us have heard about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Once referred to as shell shock and combat fatigue, PTSD is often associated with combat veterans. And while it is true that veterans are subject to both, it is something that can happen to anyone.
One is at risk of developing PTSD when exposed to one or more event(s) that involve or threaten death, serious injury, or sexual violation. You may experience an event directly when it happens to you or indirectly by witnessing it. And in some cases, the trauma develops from repeated exposure to the details of a horrific event.
We live in a world where acts of terror and constant media happen, leaving us vulnerable to the paralyzing symptoms that come with PTSD. The anxiety that affects those who suffer is overwhelmingly stressful. It is an acute reaction to severe trauma. And, because we are wired to survive, any threat will activate the fight, flight or freeze response as a way to cope with it.
Effects of PTSD
PTSD can be a deeply distressing and disturbing experience, physically and emotionally. The statistics on PTSD show that 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some traumatic event at least once in their lives. Of these people, 20% go on to develop PTSD, and women are twice as likely to develop PTSD than men.
Those who have PTSD have deep, disturbing thoughts and feelings long after their traumatic experience or experiences have occurred. Many people living with PTSD, report having flashbacks, nightmares, sadness, fear, and anger. Some people become easily startled and feel on edge in response to loud noise or an unexpected gesture that can trigger trauma.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories and can vary in frequency and intensity. The four types are:
- Intrusive thoughts, such as repeated, involuntary memories, distressing dreams, or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are re-living the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes.
- Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects, and situations that bring on distressing memories. People may try to avoid remembering or thinking about the traumatic event. They may resist talking about what happened or how they feel about it.
- Negative thoughts and feelings may include ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); constant fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much-reduced interest in activities previously enjoyed; or feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.
- Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being easily startled, or having problems concentrating or sleeping.
The typical onset of symptoms is days after exposure to a traumatic event. PTSD can be tricky as many people may experience the most active symptoms months after the fact. The DSM-5 has a specific and lengthy diagnostic list of criteria, but one essential component is that the symptoms must last more than one month, sometimes persisting for months to years. Whether it is trauma one witnesses or is directly subject to, its impact is systemic. Family and friends of the sufferer will also endure the challenges that come in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
How a Marriage and Family Therapist Can Help
If you or someone you know is struggling with symptoms of PTSD, a marriage and family therapist (MFT) can help. As systemic therapists, MFTs have expertise in assessing, diagnosing, and treating a range of mental health disorders. MFTs work with individuals, couples, and families, offering the necessary support and treatment plan to the individual affected by PTSD and his or her family.
Written by Vanessa Bradden, LMFT