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What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
It’s normal to experience stress following a traumatic event, whether it’s the coronavirus pandemic, a car accident, violent crime, or natural disaster. Traumatic stress isn’t limited to people who directly experience the traumatic event—around-the-clock news and social media coverage means we’re all faced with images of suffering and loss daily. This exposure, direct or vicarious, may cause intense fear, anxiety, confusion, or you may feel overwhelmed by many conflicting emotions.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that some individuals develop after experiencing a traumatic event. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. But, for some trauma survivors, experiencing trauma can lead to mental health challenges that interfere with everyday life.
Causes of PTSD
Some individuals develop PTSD after an extremely distressing or significant event, or after prolonged exposure to traumatic events. Examples of traumatic experiences that can lead to PTSD include:
- Car accidents
- Natural disasters
- Physical, emotional and sexual assault
- Neglect or other mistreatment in childhood
- Serious health problems
- Learning about the sudden death of a loved one
Researchers are beginning to identify why some people develop PTSD after traumatic experiences. Some risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing PTSD following a traumatic experience, such as:
- Previous experiences with depression or anxiety
- Lack of support from friends or family members
- Genetic components—for example, having a parent with a mental health condition
Symptoms of PTSD
The symptoms of PTSD vary depending on the individual. Still, clinical diagnosis of PTSD under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) requires symptoms from the following categories. For an acute trauma reaction to become PTSD, the symptoms of PTSD must persist for one month or more.
- Intrusive symptoms, like intrusive thoughts, intrusive memories, flashbacks, or nightmares.
- Avoidance symptoms. Individuals with PTSD may avoid thoughts of experiences that remind them of the traumatic event.
- Symptoms related to adverse changes in thought or mood, such as persistent anger or sadness, intense anxiety, feelings of guilt or shame, or emotional numbness.
Some individuals who have PTSD also experience physical symptoms, such as headaches or changes in eating and sleeping patterns. Individuals struggling with PTSD are also at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder.
Types of PTSD
There are different types of post-traumatic stress disorder, which include:
- PTSD with delayed onset: Individuals with late-onset PTSD experience symptoms more than six months after the traumatic event.
- PTSD with dissociation: For some people, PTSD symptoms are accompanied by feelings of unreality, such as not feeling present during the traumatic event and or not feeling present even in daily life.
- Acute stress disorder: Acute stress disorder involves the same traumatic experiences and symptoms as PTSD, but has a duration of one month or less. If severe stress disorder persists for more than one month, it becomes clinical PTSD.
- Collective trauma: Collective trauma is not a diagnosis. Instead, it’s a subset of traumatic experience that may lead to PTSD. Collective traumas apply to the group, community, or nation, with individual reactions varying within the group. Examples of collective trauma include war, genocide, natural disasters, national emergencies and pandemics.
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Treatment Options for PTSD
If you’re struggling with PTSD, you have a variety of treatment options. The main treatments for PTSD include:
- Therapy: A mental health professional can help you understand your psychological and emotional responses to trauma, and can use proven techniques to improve your symptoms and mental health.
- Grounding techniques: If your PTSD symptoms are intense and overwhelming, practicing grounding techniques may help to immediately reorient you to the present moment by engaging your five senses.
- Social support: Given the overwhelming stress of PTSD, you might feel isolated from family and friends. However, reaching out to friends and family can provide emotional support and help you adjust to a healthy life.
- Medical support: Consider making an appointment with your physician or psychiatrist. In some cases, medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can help individuals manage some of the symptoms of PTSD.
Therapy for PTSD
Different types of therapy have been shown to be effective treatments for PTSD. Some types of therapy involve careful and gradual exposure to reminders of the traumatic event, while others provide support without exposure. However, no one type of therapy fits for everyone with PTSD. The most common examples of therapy for treating PTSD include:
- Trauma-Informed Therapy: Sometimes referred to as Trauma-Informed Treatment, (TIC) starts from the point of view that trauma impacts all aspects of your life – psychological, emotional, and physical. Emphasis is placed on creating a collaborative, safe environment in the therapy session with a strengths-focussed approach.
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of talk therapy, helps individuals with PTSD reduce distress and create more helpful thoughts about their trauma. CBT can also teach skills for coping and regulating negative feelings.
- Eye Movement desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Eye movement desensitization therapy helps reduce PTSD symptoms. In EMDR, individuals make side-to-side eye movements, typically following their therapist’s fingers, while recalling aspects of the traumatic event.
- Interpersonal Therapy: Interpersonal therapy focuses on your current mental health, builds communication skills, fosters social support, and helps you regulate your emotions.
- Group Therapy: For many people, group therapy is a valuable tool in understanding PTSD and learning strategies to manage it. Sharing experiences and struggles with others can help you realize that you’re not alone.
What should you look for in a therapist?
Any traumatic event can take an emotional toll and cause traumatic stress from personal trauma to a global health crisis.
If you’re struggling to cope with intense emotions and distress, consider reaching out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. WithTherapy’s unique service will match you with a therapist who you feel comfortable with. One of the qualified mental health professionals on the WithTherapy platform will help you develop coping strategies and learn how to manage your emotions.