PTSD: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Some people have never experienced a traumatic event, while others have experienced at least one during their lifetime. And though not everyone exposed to trauma will have lasting effects, it can psychologically impact other individuals' lives, affecting their ability to cope. It can also lead to future difficulties if left untreated.
Those who continue to experience lingering effects may be diagnosed with PTSD.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe mental health condition in individuals who've experienced or witnessed a dangerous or terrifying event, including a car accident, natural disaster, or sexual abuse, to name a few.
PTSD occurs when a person cannot process disturbing events, causing them to feel fearful, hopeless, and chronically anxious, even when no danger exists.
For example, every individual has an innate nature to respond to dangerous stimuli. Therefore, if an aggressive dog charges at them, they will naturally react and enter fight or flight mode. In other words, they will either fight the dog or run from them.
Conversely, a person with PTSD is constantly in fight or flight mode, no matter the reason. It can be a subtle tap on their shoulder, hearing a loud sound, or smelling a familiar scent that causes them to startle.
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
Traumatized individuals can experience emotions immediately or long after the event. Immediate reactions can include shock and denial and lead to long-term symptoms of fear, anger, or anxiety.
Emotional symptoms may include mood swings, guilt or shame, and changes in their behavior. Physical symptoms may include body aches and pains, sleep disorders, and appetite changes. When combined, symptoms can become debilitating.
Other symptoms may include:
· Avoiding people, places, or things that are a reminder of the trauma
· Hyperarousal/startles easily
· Flat affect
· Restlessness/sleep disturbances
· Panic attacks
· Suicidal ideations
· Negative beliefs about oneself
Causes of PTSD
Causes of PTSD are from being exposed to, witnessing, or learning about a traumatic event.
Some causes may include the following:
· Childhood abuse or neglect
· The death of a loved one
· Sexual, verbal, or physical abuse
· Vehicular accident
· Military combat
· Witnessing violence or death
· Natural disaster
· Terrorist attack
Individuals who have experienced long-term trauma, receive less support from others, and have a history of mental health conditions are more prone to PTSD.
In addition, high-stress hormones called cortisol and a person's resiliency can also affect whether a person is more at risk for PTSD.
How Does PTSD Affect the Brain?
Trauma can have a long-term effect on an individual's brain. For example, children exposed to trauma tend to have a decrease in the size of their brain, cells that turn on and off, and cortisol changes.
The hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex are three areas of the brain affected by trauma and associated with thinking, memory, fear, and decision-making.
· Hippocampus is responsible for spatial navigation and long-term memory. Therefore, trauma can reduce present memories and make distinguishing between the past and present challenging.
· Amygdala is responsible for the startle response (fight or flight) and vivid memories. Therefore, trauma can increase an individual's sensitivity to adrenaline, creating anxiety.
· Prefrontal cortex is responsible for regulating emotions. Therefore, the effects of trauma can decrease the size and function of this part of the brain and increase blood flow, resulting in intense emotions.
How Is PTSD Treated?
Finding an experienced trauma therapist can help people cope more effectively, build new skills, and improve their overall mental and physical well-being.
Treatment is also specific to each individual and their experiences.
Treatment may include:
1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on how a person's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors intertwine and how they affect the client. Because individuals with PTSD often adopt maladaptive thinking patterns, such as envisioning the worst outcome or blaming themselves for the situation, they may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or self-harmful behaviors. Therefore, it is necessary to work on changing these patterns.
Treatment includes supporting yet challenging clients to re-examine their reactions to trauma and how it has impacted their lives. They will learn how to form healthier behavior patterns and move forward from their experiences.
CBT can help with feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, trigger responses, and avoidance behavior, improving one's quality of life.
2. Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy focusing on treating anxiety disorders and overcoming phobias from PTSD.
Treatment includes gradually exposing the client to what they fear the most in a controlled setting.
For example, clients who avoid discussing their trauma will practice anxiety-reducing techniques, such as deep breathing in session. Other sessions may include listing things they avoid and learning how to tackle them individually. Or they may record their trauma story in session and listen to it independently.
Although exposure may initially invoke anxiety, over time, a person's symptoms will decrease through repeated practice.