The best way out is always through.”
– Robert Frost
Most people who experience traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Anyone can develop PTSD at any age. This includes combat veterans as well as people who have experienced or witnessed a physical or sexual assault, abuse, an accident, a disaster, a terror attack or other serious events. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when they are no longer in danger.
According to the National Center for PTSD, a program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about seven or eight of every 100 people will experience PTSD in their lifetime. Women are more likely than men to develop PTSD. Certain aspects of the traumatic event and some biological factors may make some people more likely to develop PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships. They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks.
“Even though PTSD and trauma are related, they are different,” said Virginia Dohms, licensed professional clinical counselor at Trinity Behavioral Health. “Trauma can be a distressing or disturbing event, or an emotional response to a terrible event. PTSD is a mental health condition that develops following a traumatic event that causes impairment in functioning and relationships. Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical to reduce distress and increase meaning and purpose to life.”
To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all the following for at least one month: at least one re-experiencing symptom and avoidance symptom, at least two arousal and reactivity symptoms, and cognition and mood symptoms.
Re-experiencing symptoms include reoccurring memories or dreams related to the event, or can include flashbacks, where one relives the event, including physical symptoms such as a racing heart or sweating.
Avoidance symptoms may cause people to change their routines, such as staying away from places, events or objects that are reminders of the experience or avoiding thoughts or feelings of the traumatic event.
Arousal and reactivity symptoms are often present and can lead to feelings of stress and anger and may interfere with daily life such as sleeping, eating or concentrating. They can be manifested by feeling “on edge,” irritable, or engaging in reckless or destructive behavior.
Cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen after the traumatic event and can lead a person to feel detached from family or friends. Someone suffering these symptoms may have negative thoughts about oneself or the world, loss of interest in previous activities, or difficulty feeling positive emotions.
If you have disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month, if they’re severe, or if you feel you’re having trouble getting your life back under control, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. To diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, your doctor will likely perform a physical exam to rule out any medical problems that may be causing your symptoms. A mental health professional will conduct an evaluation that includes discussing signs and symptoms.
Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment can help you regain a sense of control over your life. The primary treatment is psychotherapy but can also include medication. Combining these treatments can help improve your symptoms by teaching you skills to address your symptoms, help you learn ways to cope if symptoms return, and treat other problems related to traumatic experiences such as depression, anxiety and misuse of alcohol or drugs.
Several types of psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, may be used to treat children and adults with PTSD and may include:
- Cognitive therapy helps you recognize the ways of thinking (cognitive patterns) that are keeping you stuck — for example, negative beliefs about yourself and the risk of traumatic things happening again. For PTSD, cognitive therapy often is used along with exposure therapy.
- Exposure therapy helps you safely face both situations and memories that you find frightening so that you can learn to cope with them effectively. Exposure therapy can be particularly helpful for flashbacks and nightmares.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories and change how you react to them.
Studies show that by using EMDR therapy, people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to accomplish. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma.
“EMDR is becoming a widely used therapy in treating clients who have experienced severe trauma,” said Dohms. “It helps a person create coping skills and put them in place to gradually desensitize the triggers of PTSD and reprocess the brain’s reaction.”
All these approaches can help you gain control of lasting fear after a traumatic event. You and your mental health professional can discuss what type of therapy or combination of therapies may best meet your needs.
Medication can also help improve symptoms of PTSD. Antidepressants can help symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve sleep problems and concentration. Anti-anxiety medications relieve severe anxiety and related problems. Some anti-anxiety medications have the potential for abuse, so they are generally used only for a short time.
Tell your doctor about any side effects or problems with medications. You may need to try more than one or a combination of medications, or your doctor may need to adjust your dosage or medication schedule before finding the right fit for you. You may see an improvement in your mood and other symptoms within a few weeks.
Dohms takes self-care one step further and suggests that in addition to therapy, clients create a healing environment to provide daily support. “Surround yourself with supportive people,” she says. “Structure your day to create routine and purpose; exercise and eat healthy; practice yoga, meditation or prayer. Experiencing grief doesn’t mean you’re broken, it means you’re human.”
Getting timely help and support may prevent normal stress reactions from getting worse and developing into PTSD. This may mean turning to family and friends who will listen and offer comfort. It may mean seeking out a mental health professional for a brief course of therapy. Some people may also find it helpful to turn to their faith community.
Trinity Health offers convenient outpatient behavioral healthcare in Minot and Williston. We also offer inpatient care at Trinity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital. To make an outpatient appointment call: 701-857-5998 (Minot) or 701-572-7711 (Williston).