Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. It is a natural physical and mental response to something that has been incredibly traumatic. There are many resources and services that can be of help to a survivor of a traumatic event.
PTSD can develop immediately after experiencing a disturbing event or it can occur weeks, months or even years later. There is no set pattern, and everyone’s experiences are different. It is estimated that PTSD affects about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience.
There is always a cause for this anxiety, and part of recovery is addressing that cause; this will take time and support, and while it is not always the best option for some people, there are systems in place to help a survivor confront this cause and deal with it. Sometimes the cause of anxiety is an accumulation of events occurring over a period of months or years, where the person is subject to long-term, repeated trauma (as in the case of childhood abuse). In such cases, the term ‘Complex PTSD’, or C-PTSD, is often used even though it is not officially a diagnosis included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
The effects of PTSD vary between survivors, and there is no fixed pattern. The NHS state that someone with PTSD may often relive the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. They may also have problems sleeping, such as insomnia, and find concentrating difficult, as well as suffering from depression. Hyperarousal – that is, being alert – may occur, as may being jumpy or highly reactive. These symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on the person’s day-to-day life.
Recovering from, and addressing, PTSD is difficult, and will require willingness on the part of the survivor and support from friends and family. It is only natural to want to avoid painful experiences, but the sooner PTSD is addressed, the sooner it can be overcome. This may take months, or even years, to feel ready. PTSD can be successfully treated, even when it develops many years after a traumatic event. Treatment will always depends on the severity of symptoms and how soon they occur after the traumatic event. If the survivor feels ready to address the issue, they can talk to their GP or college nurse, and any of the following paths may be offered to them:
Watchful waiting - waiting to see whether the symptoms improve without treatment (this may occur alongside recommendations of exercise, meditation and other relaxing activities)
Psychological treatment - such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
Anti-depressant medication - such as paroxetine or mirtazapine
The main treatments for PTSD are psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often used; it is a type of therapy that aims to help you manage your problems by changing how you think and act. Trauma-focused CBT uses a range of psychological treatment techniques to help you come to terms with the traumatic event. For example, your therapist may ask you to confront your traumatic memories by thinking about your experience in detail. During this process your therapist will help you cope with any distress you feel, while identifying any unhelpful thoughts or misrepresentations you have about the experience. By doing this, your therapist can help you gain control of your fear and distress by changing the negative way you think about your experience, such as feeling that you are to blame for what happened or fear that it may happen again. CBT does not work for everyone, and the survivor should always consider their mental well-being before engaging in any kind of therapy or medication.
PTSD is a completely natural response – you should not feel ashamed or guilty about feeling the way you do. Recognising that there may be something serious going on is the first step of getting help. Researching on the NHS website and speaking to your GP or college nurse – or anyone that you feel comfortable with – is the next stage of recovering from PTSD.