This is the third article in a series on mental health awareness.
Imagine going about your day and suddenly being struck with extreme, debilitating anxiety or fear. This is a reality for individuals living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “(PTSD is) a mental and physical reaction to a traumatic event involving reliving traumatic events and resulting in a disruption of day-to-day life,” explained Lake Region Healthcare (LRH) psychiatrist, Jackie Huber.
“In recent years, research has exploded in the area of trauma and its effects on the body. Research has found that the body’s stress response when engaged chronically causes many physical and emotional issues. It is definitely in our best interest to understand trauma and more specifically, post-traumatic stress disorder,” Beth Monke, psychologist at Lakeland Mental Health Center (LMHC) stated.
Monke shared the example of how she was nearly hit by a train during her teenage years. Thankfully, she was able to avoid the collision.
“To this day, I sometimes feel a twinge of anxiety when I cross a railroad track without a crossbar. This reexperiencing is an example of a trauma trigger, which includes experiencing stimuli through my senses (seeing a train track without a crossbar), which in turn activates the memory (of nearly dying), and then triggers the fight, flight or freeze response even though no train is in sight,” she said. “Unfortunately, sometimes an event can be so traumatic and the response so intense that it causes us to be unable to function in our daily lives. This is when a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is given.”
Using Monke’s example of the near collision with a train, a PTSD response may include being unwilling or unable to drive and experiencing panic attacks or debilitating levels of anxiety when thinking about trains or driving.
PTSD diagnoses are considered when the traumatic events experienced include exposure to death or threats of death, sexual violence, or serious injury. Exposure to these events does not automatically necessitate a PTSD diagnosis, as they must present across qualifying categories in order to support the diagnosis.
Individuals suffering from PTSD may sustain nightmares or flashbacks relating to their traumatic experience. They may suffer from intrusive memories or attempt to avoid those memories, avoid any reminders of the event, and experience difficulties with their mood — anxiety, guilt, sadness, anger, etc. Irritability, sleep issues, recklessness, concentration difficulties, and general jumpiness may also present. In some cases, one may dissociate, meaning they may feel that they are not physically present when, in fact, they are.
The American Psychiatry Association shares that 1 in 11 people will experience PTSD within their lifetime. Women experience PTSD at a higher rate than men; and Latino, Black and Native American populations in the U.S. are disproportionately affected and experience PTSD at a higher rate than white people.
PTSD is a largely misunderstood diagnosis. There is a belief that in order to experience PTSD one would have to have been involved in war or combat but it’s not true. As mentioned earlier, trauma doesn’t automatically equate to PTSD and it can affect anyone. Brandon Saxton, clinic manager of Solutions Behavioral Health Partners, shared that “there are a number of factors that make some people more or less likely to develop (PTSD), and most of them are out of our control.”
Any person of any age, gender, or race can experience PTSD and, with appropriate and effective treatment, reduction or elimination of symptoms can and do occur.
“Most effective treatments will include components of psychoeducation regarding the trauma response, teaching emotion regulation skills such as relaxation, mindfulness and grounding, and also identifying and reworking upsetting thoughts and interpretations about the event,” explained Monke. “Clients are generally encouraged to learn to rewrite and retell their story looking at it from new perspectives and eventually finding meaning and acceptance. Often, there are lingering triggers that need to be addressed using exposure therapy strategies.”
Monke concluded with beneficial advice for those suffering from, or who feel they may be suffering from PTSD.
“When looking for a therapist, it is important to find someone trained in treating PTSD and trauma. There are many trained therapists in the area ready and willing to help,” Monke said.