American Military Wives Battling Bare – Raising Awareness About PTSD
“Broken by Battle, Wounded by War,
My Love is forever, to you this I swore.
I will quiet your silent screams,
Help heal your shattered soul,
Until once again my love,
YOU ARE WHOLE”
How do I know if I am experiencing symptoms of … Trauma?
Life is traumatic from time to time. You know what I mean, the unexpected – happens and sometimes it happens to the degree that it jolts us out of feeling in control of ourselves and our world. We lose the feeling of safety and trust in ourselves, in others and in the world around us.
After a traumatic experience, it’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected. This is the body’s way of processing the emotions that were activated by the trauma. These emotions will subside as your body processes what has happened and is able to reassure you that the danger has passed and safety has returned.
Sometimes, though, those feelings of distress do not fade. They get – stuck, and you are left with a constant sense of danger and painful memories. The clinical name given to this constellation of experiences is Post Traumatic Stress and if the experience persists, you may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD can leave you feeling like your mind has become a kind of personal torture chamber. It can seem like you’ll never get over what happened or feel normal again. There is good news. There is treatment and it does work. By seeking treatment, reaching out for support, and developing new coping skills, you can overcome PTSD and move on with your life.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is the name given to the experience of symptoms or condition that can develop after being exposed to or encountering a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless.
Many people associate PTSD with military service or soldiers who return from combat and this condition can and does develop from exposure to military combat but there are other conditions, more familiar experiences that can also precipitate the development of PTSD. Any overwhelming life experience especially if the event triggers feelings of being out of control or encountering unpredictability can trigger the onset of PTSD.
PTSD can affect those who personally experience the catastrophe but also those who are bystanders or observers of the catastrophe and those who “pick up the pieces” after the event. So this would include emergency workers, law enforcement officers and even in the friends or family members of those who went through the actual trauma.
PTSD develops differently from person to person. Generally symptoms of PTSD emerge in the hours or days following the traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear.
Common Events that Precipitate the Development of PTSD are:
- Natural disasters
- Car or plane crashes
- Terrorist attacks
- Sudden death of a loved one
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Childhood neglect
- Any event that leaves you stuck and feeling helpless and hopeless
What is the difference between PTSD and a ‘Normal Response’ to Trauma?
The traumatic events that lead to PTSD are usually so overwhelming and frightening that they would upset anyone. It is very common to feel crazy, disconnected, or numb following a traumatic event where your sense of safety and trust have been shattered.
Almost everyone exposed to the event experiences some PTSD symptoms. It is very common to have bad dreams, feel fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. These experiences are normal or common reactions to abnormal events.
These symptoms, for the majority of people experiencing these kinds of reactions, are short-lived. They may last for several days or even weeks, but they gradually decrease. However if the events have precipitated the onset of PTSD, your symptoms will not decrease. You may notice the symptoms actually worsen.
How does PTSD develop?
The mind and the body are in shock after a traumatic experience. However as the mind-body system processes what has happened, the emotions and memories that were triggered by what happened – ‘you’ are able to reorient yourself in time. You will be more and more able to orient your attention in the present moment rather than being stuck in a frightening past moment.
The development or emergence of PTSD occurs when you remain in a state of psychological shock as if the frightening events are constantly happening – in your mind. Your memory of what happened and your feelings what happened have become disconnected from each other and the present moment. The brain houses the mind, and it is through the mind we perceive ourselves. PTSD prevents the brain from perceiving the present accurately and in order to reconnect to the present moment and move on, it is necessary to process memories and emotions associated with the trauma events.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of PTSD?
Symptoms of PTSD can show up very suddenly, very gradually or confusingly appear to come and go as if they had a mind of their own. Symptoms can appear suddenly without any apparent reason for their emergence or and more understandably, they can be triggered by something that reminds you of the original event. Examples of triggering events could be sound, an image, a word, a tone of voice or even a smell.
Symptoms of PTSD fall in to Three Main Groups or Types:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event
- Avoiding reminders of the trauma
- Increased anxiety and emotional arousal
1. RE-EXPERIENCING THE TRAUMATIC EVENT
Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)
Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)
2. AVOIDANCE AND NUMBING
Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
Loss of interest in activities and life in general
Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)
3. INCREASED ANXIETY AND EMOTIONAL AROUSAL
Difficulty falling or staying asleep
Irritability or outbursts of anger
Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
Feeling jumpy and easily startled
Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Anger and irritability
Guilt, shame, or self-blame
Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
Depression and hopelessness
Suicidal thoughts and feelings
Feeling alienated and alone
Physical aches and pains
What does PTSD look like in Children and Young People?
Fear of being separated from parent
Losing previously-acquired skills (such as toilet training)
Sleep problems and nightmares without recognizable content
Somber, compulsive play in which themes or aspects of the trauma are repeated
New phobias and anxieties that seem unrelated to the trauma (such as a fear of monsters)
Acting out the trauma through play, stories, or drawings
Aches and pains with no apparent cause
Irritability and aggression
Are there Risk Factors that make the development of PTSD more likely?
There are some risk factors that can increase your susceptibility to develop PTSD. These risk factors are associated with the circumstances surround the traumatic even and nature of the event itself.
Events are more likely to cause PTSD when the threat to a person’s life or safety is severe, extreme and prolonged and also when the harm caused by the event was intentional, that is, human inflicted harm such as rape, assault or torture.
The person’s perception of what happened is also important in determining to what extent the event will cause PTSD. The extent to which the person affected perceived they had some control over what was happening and to what extent they ‘could’ escape determines the extent to which symptoms of PTSD will develop.
Other risk factors for PTSD include:
Previous traumatic experiences, especially in early life
Family history of PTSD or depression
History of physical or sexual abuse
History of substance abuse
History of depression, anxiety, or another mental illness
High level of stress in everyday life
Lack of support after the trauma
Lack of coping skills
What can help PTSD?
Psychological wounds are in some ways similar to physiological wounds. It they are left untreated – they fester and become infected or septic. Untreated PTSD can develop in to a kind of psychological infection.
If you suspect that you or someone you care about is suffering from PTSD, try not to tippy toe around it. It is important to seek help yourself or encourage your loved one to seek help as soon as is possible. This will slow down and even prevent the damage a person’s life and important close relationships that untreated PTSD can cause.
The sooner PTSD is confronted, the easier it is to overcome. I am not sure I have met the person yet who is keen to shin a light in to the darkness of psychological wounds because feelings of shame, fear and anger lurk there. Seeking help for PTSD is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of personal responsibility to yourself and accountability to those who need you.
The only way to overcome PTSD is to confront what has happened with the support and guidance of an experienced Psychologist or Counsellor. If you’re reluctant to seek help, remember – you are not alone. You are not the first person who has ever encountered a traumatic event. You are in good company. If you reach out and seek help, it becomes much easier for others to reach out and break the silence and reclaim your life.
It’s only natural to want to avoid painful memories and feelings. This is one of the primary ways a person with PTSD will try to cope with their symptoms but over time avoiding does untold damage to their important close relationships and their lives. PTSD is not something you can outrun because you cannot outrun your own emotions and memories. The symptoms will come out under stress and can come out in dramatic displays of emotions such as anger, even rage. Some people experiencing PTSD will begin repeating or replaying what happened to them in their own close relationships. This cause untold damage to lives now and in the future.
Why Should I Seek Help for PTSD?
Like most health conditions – prevention is better than cure. The good news is PTSD can be treated but early treatment is better. The goal for catching it earlier rather than later is to prevent the symptoms and the damage they can cause from getting worse. Finding out more about what treatments work, where to look for help, and what kind of questions to ask can make it easier to get help and lead to better outcomes.
PTSD symptoms can change family life. PTSD symptoms can get in the way of your family life. You may find that you pull away from loved ones, are not able to get along with people, or that you are angry or even violent. Getting help for your PTSD can help improve your family life.
PTSD can be related to other health problems because your body is constantly on high alert, poised for danger. Your body’s stress response is easily triggered in response to memories rather than the situation you are currently living in. This causes your body to become exhausted. PTSD symptoms can make physical health problems worse. For example, studies have shown a relationship between PTSD and heart health.
What is the Treatment for PTSD?
Treatment for PTSD relieves symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. Rather than avoiding the trauma and any reminder of it, treatment will encourage you to recall and process the emotions and sensations you felt during the original event in order to assist your brain perceive safety in the current moment rather that continually perceiving a memory of danger. In addition to offering an outlet for emotions you’ve been bottling up, treatment for PTSD will also help restore your sense of control and reduce the powerful hold the memory of the trauma has on your life.
- Explore your thoughts and feelings about the trauma
- Work through feelings of guilt, self-blame, and mistrust
- Learn how to cope with and control intrusive memories
- Address problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships
Types of treatment for PTSD
Trauma-focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD and trauma involves carefully and gradually “exposing” yourself to thoughts, feelings, and situations that remind you of the trauma. Therapy also involves identifying upsetting thoughts about the traumatic event–particularly thoughts that are distorted and irrational—and replacing them with more balanced picture.
Family Therapy can be especially helpful because PTSD affects both you and everyone in relationship to you. Family therapy can help your loved ones understand what you’re going through. People with PTSD initially avoiding behaviours as a way of trying to cope with the intensity of the symptoms they experience. This can cause significant problems in the area of communication and intimacy within the family. So, Family Therapy can slow, stop and repair the damage PTSD is causing and assist everyone in the family communicate better and work through relationship problems.
Medication is sometimes prescribed to people with PTSD to relieve secondary symptoms of depression or anxiety. Antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft are the medications most commonly used for PTSD. Antidepressants may help you feel less sad, worried, or on edge, they do not treat the causes of PTSD. There are some herbs such as Withania Somnifera which are very effective at reducing the intensity of the body’s stress response. I have used herbal treatments to assist the body heal from PTSD.
How do I know I have found the right Psychologist or Counsellor?
A good place to start is looking for a professional who specialises in the treatment of Trauma and PTSD. You can ask your GP or do an online search yourself. Asking people in your network can also be a good place to start.
Recommendations, skills, knowledge and experience will reassure you that the person you have chosen – has the skills, but this is only half the challenge in successfully recovering from PTSD. It is essential that you feel comfortable and safe with and that they are someone you can trust. Go with your guts. If the Counsellor does not feel right, there will be a Counsellor that does. Find them. You can, they are out there. Treatment will not be successful unless you feel respected and understood. This does not necessarily mean you should choose a Counsellor who agrees with you! But you do need to believe they are on your side.
What can I do to help myself recover from PTSD?
Recovering from PTSD is a process. It is gradual and ongoing. Recovery will not happen overnight and the trauma memories will not completely disappear, the intensity of emotion tagged to the memories does reduce to the point where the person is not constantly being triggered.
Tip 1: Reach out to Others for Support
PTSD can make you feel disconnected from others. You may be tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. It is important to stay connected to life and the people who can about you. Support from other people is vital to your recovery from PTSD, so ask your close friends and family members for their help during this tough time.
Also consider joining a support group for survivors of the same type of trauma you experienced. Support groups for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can help you feel less isolated and alone. They also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery. If you can’t find a support group in your area, look for an online group.
Tip 2: Avoid Alcohol and Drugs
Many people try to soothe themselves when they are suffering from PTSD by using alcohol and drugs. Taking substances that affect your mood may temporarily make you feel better but they will cause your PTSD symptoms to worsen in the long term. Substance use causes the emotional numbing, social isolation, anger, and depression associated with PTSD to get worse. It also interferes with treatment and can add to problems at home and in your relationships.
Tip 3: Challenge your sense of Helplessness
Overcoming your sense of helplessness is key to overcoming PTSD and this part of the process can itself become a personal journey. Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It is important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times.
One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others. This is simple to do and does not cost you any thing but time. You can volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need, or donate to your favorite charity. Taking positive action directly challenges the sense of helplessness that is a common symptom of PTSD.
What are some Positive Ways to cope with PTSD?
- Learn about trauma and PTSD
- Join a PTSD support group
- Practice relaxation techniques
- Pursue outdoor activities
- Confide in a person you trust
- Spend time with positive people
- Avoid alcohol and drugs
- Enjoy the peace of nature
Tip 4: Spend time in Nature
Taking a walk in a natural environment such as a walking track or in a park is one of the simplest and most effective ways to assist the mind-body system orient to the present moment. This is the very thing people with PTSD have difficulty doing. Pursuing outdoor activities like hiking, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, swimming and skiing may help people cope with PTSD symptoms.
Anyone with symptoms of PTSD can benefit from the relaxation, seclusion, and peace that come with being in the natural world. Focusing on strenuous outdoor activities can also help challenge your sense of helplessness and help your nervous system become “unstuck” and move on from the traumatic event. Seek out local organizations that offer outdoor recreation or teambuilding opportunities.
How does PTSD impact on Family Life?
PTSD can take a heavy toll on Family Life if unchecked. It can be hard to understand why your loved one won’t open up to you—why he or she is less affectionate and more volatile. The symptoms of PTSD can also result in job loss, substance abuse, and other stressful problems. If you are supporting a family member with PTSD, it is extremely important that you sek out and find support for yourself.
It is easy to let the PTSD of your family member dominate family life and even easier to begin ignoring or deprioritizing your own needs. This will cause you to burnout over time. Helping a family member with PTSD requires that you “fit your own oxygen mask first”. If you too fall apart, you cannot be an effective support to one suffering from PTSD. Learn all you can about PTSD. The more you know about the symptoms and treatment options, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one and keep things in perspective.
How can I help a Family Member with PTSD?
Be patient and understanding. Getting better takes time, even when a person is committed to treatment for PTSD. Be patient with the pace of recovery and offer a sympathetic ear. A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so avoid the temptation to tell your loved one to stop rehashing the past and move on.
Try to anticipate and prepare for PTSD triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the trauma; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to offer your support and help your loved one calm down.
It is easy to take the symptoms of PTSD personally, but they are more clinical than personal. Common symptoms of PTSD include emotional numbness, anger, and withdrawal. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, or closed off remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.
It can be tempting to pressure your loved one in to talking. Try not to do this. It is very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their traumatic experiences. For some, it can even make things worse. Never try to force your loved one to open up. Let the person know, however, that you’re there when and if he or she wants to talk.
Above all, hang in there and don’t lose hope. There is help and people can and do recover from PTSD. You and or your loved one will also. Reach out and find the right Counsellor. They are out there.
It can be better and if you put the work in, it will be.