Trauma can change your brain–and, as 3.5% of Americans diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can attest, it can carry into your everyday life.
PTSD is a common mental health condition that, while often associated with experiencing wartime trauma and impacting the veteran population, affects many. Therefore, it is important to understand what it is and to be able to recognise the signs and symptoms.
What is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops in some individuals who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.
It is natural to feel afraid after a traumatic situation, and the “flight-or-fight” response is an appropriate reaction to protect a person from harm. Those who continue to experience consistent recurrences of these feelings of stress or fear may have PTSD.
How can you recognise the symptoms of PTSD?
There are some very recognisable signs and symptoms of PTSD that you might recognise. While many of the following are common, every experience is different, so some may experience some but not all of these things.
Reliving the event or aspects of the event
This is also known as “re-experiencing”, when sudden unwanted, and traumatic memories interfere with or replace what is happening in the present. It is very much a sign to look out for because the vast majority of those diagnosed with PTSD will have symptoms of re-experiencing.
Some of the signs of re-experiencing that can occur include:
- Vivid flashbacks (feeling like trauma is happening right then)
- Intrusive thoughts
- Physical sensations such as pain, sweating, and nausea
Becoming hyper-alert or feeling on edge
Also known as hyperarousal, someone with PTSD may have periods where they feel overly anxious and find it difficult to relax. They may be constantly looking for threats and become easily startled.
Hyperarousal often leads to irritability and angry outbursts. It can also cause sleeping problems as well as difficulty concentrating.
Some of the signs of hyperarousal include:
- Panicking when reminded about the traumatic event
- Easily upset or angered
- Extreme alertness, also known as ‘hypervigilance.’
- Difficulty or inability to sleep or focus on tasks
- Being jumpy or easily startled
Avoidance of specific memories and feelings
Trying to avoid being reminded of the traumatic event or things associated with it is another key symptom of PTSD. This may be anything from avoiding people and places to talking completely avoiding talking to someone about their experiences.
Some even try not to feel anything at all, which is known as “emotional numbing“.This behaviour can make individuals withdraw and give up activities they may have enjoyed.
Some of the signs of avoidance and emotional numbing include:
- Feeling the need to stay constantly busy
- Avoiding everything that reminds them of the traumatic event
- Being unable to remember specific details
- Feeling emotionally numb or unable to process feelings
- Feeling detached from the body or “out of the body”.
- Engaging in self-destructive or reckless behaviours
PTSD almost always has physical effects.
When we feel emotionally and physically stressed, our hypothalamus, a tiny region in the brain, sets off an alarm system within the body. A series of complicated biological processes release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases heart rate elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.
Cortisol, on the other hand, is the primary stress hormone. It increases glucose (or sugars) in the bloodstream, helps your brain use that glucose, and helps repair tissues. Cortisol also alters immune system responses and suppresses several body systems, including the digestive and reproductive systems.
The body’s stress response system is usually self-limiting. Once a threat has been deemed to have passed, and everything is safe, the body should return to normal. However, with situations like PTSD, where stressors are constantly present, and the body constantly feels under attack, the ‘flight-or-fight’ reaction continues.
Individuals whose bodies are overexposed to cortisol and other stress hormones can experience an increased risk of a variety of health problems:
- Anxiety and depression
- Migraines and headaches
- Heart disease and conditions
- Memory and concentration impairments
What can I do to support someone with PTSD?
There are a variety of steps you can take to be supportive of a loved one who has been diagnosed with PTSD.
- Educate yourself about PTSD.
- Be available to listen if needed.
- Don’t pressure your loved one to talk.
- Encourage the individual to seek mental health treatment.
- Encourage the individual to speak to others with PTSD (support groups)
- Anticipate PTSD triggers and make a crisis plan.
- Minimize stressful situations, but know when to seek immediate help.
Sadly, PTSD can sometimes lead to crises. If your loved one is in danger or threatening danger to others, seek help immediately. Call emergency response (911) or call the Suicide Preventing Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
Tommy Williamson did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in psychology, mental health, and wellness.
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