It’s natural to be afraid during and after traumatic events. However, most people recover naturally and relatively quickly. After a couple of days or weeks, they no longer experience the heightened fear related to the situation.
When fears and anxiety surrounding a traumatic event persist longer than “normal”, someone may be feeling the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Understanding PTSD and how it develops is helpful for those who suffer, particularly for those seeking treatment.
What is PTSD?
Originally, PTSD was only a diagnosis for those who experienced explicit danger to life, like war or natural disasters. However, our understanding of PTSD has changed over the years to include broader events.
PTSD is a condition in which a person has a difficult time recovering from witnessing or being a part of a traumatic event. It creates adverse symptoms that impede emotional, physical, social, and mental health.
Symptoms of PTSD can be prevalent for a long time. A formal diagnosis for PTSD requires that symptoms last more than one month, and symptoms could likely dissipate then resurface years after the event or events.
What is Trauma?
Not all traumatic events will be the cause of PTSD. Some people may have a higher level of resilience and be able to cope with traumatic events easier than others.
Not all trauma involves an obvious threat to life. Trauma is any event that impacts an individual’s sense of control and ability to process the event. "Little t" traumas aren't life-threatening, but still impact our ability to cope. Things like the death of a loved one or divorce are still traumatic to many.
"Big T" traumas are those obvious threat to life events. They are easy to identify, while "little t" traumas might be less obvious.
As we grow in our understanding of trauma it's become more evident that trauma is different for every person. Events can affect everyone differently.
Complex trauma stems from an extended period of time living through terrible events. We often think of trauma as an event or moment. While that is certainly true, it is also true that living through an extended period of abuse or neglect is traumatic.
Those with complex traumas may feel negative self-perceptions, have a hard time trusting, and have a vulnerability to addiction.
It’s difficult to know how many people live with PTSD. Some may be unknowingly undiagnosed, or will never seek a diagnosis.
It’s estimated that 6% of people in the US will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Some of these individuals may eventually recover on their own, but the majority will never seek treatment.
Not all PTSD symptoms will be present at all times. Some symptoms may come and go, but they are, overall, life-altering and inhibit the individual from living a healthy life.
There are four areas of identifiable symptoms. To receive a formal diagnosis, it is not necessary for someone to experience all of these symptoms.
The most typical symptom of PTSD is re-experiencing trauma responses. These can look different, but they’re characterized as intrusive memories. Surfacing at unwanted times, causing distress, and reminding you of the trauma.
Losing interest in activities that used to be enjoyed
Effects of PTSD & Comorbidities
Someone struggling with PTSD will more than likely feel effects on other areas of their mental and physical health.
Below are some effects people with PTSD may feel in their daily lives. Some of these categories can also be considered comorbidities with a distinct diagnosis.
Anxiety will often accompany PTSD as most symptoms involve feeling anxious. Although refuted by some, PTSD is understood to be an anxiety disorder by many.
Experiencing trauma makes individuals more likely to develop clinical depression. Depression is characterized by sadness, low levels of energy, self-loathing, and thoughts of death.
Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the world, and can often lead to suicidal ideation. If you or a loved one is feeling suicidal, immediately call the 24/7 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
Maladaptive behaviors, or negative coping, are any behaviors that may seem to offer relief, but long term can cause great harm. Certain ways of dealing with stress can be dangerous. Some dangerous behaviors include driving too fast, seeking fights, over-eating, smoking, and substance abuse.
It is not uncommon for individuals living with PTSD to rely on substances to find temporary relief and comfort. While seeming useful for a time, prolonged drug use can lead to substance abuse and addiction. This correlates to a wide array of health concerns.
It’s important to seek relief in healthy ways. PTSD is a treatable disorder, with healthy ways to treat symptoms.
Effects on Relationships
People experiencing PTSD may have a hard time maintaining healthy relationships. For most living with unresolved trauma, being vulnerable is difficult. Past abuse or neglect may leave fearful feelings toward abandonment.
Both fearful avoidant and dismissive avoidant attachment styles are typically developed in those who experienced complex trauma as a child. These attachment styles make it difficult to find meaning in connections and can create conflicting feelings toward close relationships.
How Does PTSD Develop?
PTSD can develop at any age and traumatic events may not develop into PTSD until a later time. Child, teen, adult, it doesn’t matter, living through a traumatic event can develop into PTSD for anyone.
The development of PTSD is directly associated with exposure to trauma. This could be any event that caused terror or fear and could include witnessing something happen to someone else.
Does Anything Increase the Risk of PTSD?
Risk factors refer to any factors in someone’s life that could increase the risk of illness. While PTSD can develop at any age, these factors may increase someone’s risk of PTSD:
Exposure to dangerous events and traumas, including combat
Seeing another person hurt
Additional stress after the event
Having little or no existing support structures
Childhood trauma including repeated changes in caretaker
Long-term exposure to a traumatic event/events
Does Anything Decrease the Risk of PTSD?
Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. These individuals may have a higher window of tolerance. These are what’s considered resilience factors:
Practicing positive coping strategies
Seeking out support from others like family and friends
Having an ability to have confidence about your actions while in danger
Responding effectively in spite of feeling fear
Having a good support system in place before traumatic events is a great way to decrease your risk of PTSD. Good friends can help us through a lot, but sometimes professional therapy is the way to go. If you’re looking for professional support feel free to reach out to Inner Balance Counseling. We’re here to help.
When PTSD is developed, other conditions may arise as well.
Acute Stress Disorder
Acute stress disorder is very similar to PTSD in the sense that it develops after a traumatic event. The symptoms are similar including flashbacks, detachment from self, and avoidant behaviors. However, symptoms typically stop after a month.
Around 50% of those diagnosed with acute stress disorder will go on to experience PTSD. Treatments for acute stress disorder are similar to PTSD and help prevent symptoms from getting worse and developing into PTSD.
Those who have lived through a traumatic event or events may also develop adjustment disorders. This group of symptoms makes it extremely difficult to cope in certain situations. Strong reactions are typical for those with this disorder and it is not rare for a PTSD patient to have similar symptoms.
Attachment disorders are typically seen in individuals who experience C-PTSD from childhood trauma. These disorders make it difficult for children to develop correctly.
Signs of these disorders can typically be seen as early as the child's 1st birthday, and often cause challenges that, if untreated, could last a lifetime.
The good news is, PTSD is treatable. Treatments for PTSD have been proven to effectively treat all forms of trauma-related disorders.
Talk therapy has been around since the late 1800s. It's been proven effective for over 100 years. One staple version of talk therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is considered the “gold standard” of trauma therapy. Traumatic memories can be difficult to talk about and even remember. EMDR helps turn traumatic memories into “normal” memories.
Other effective therapies for PTSD include:
Cognitive processing therapy
Prolonged exposure therapy
Pharmaceutical medication is also an effective form of treatment. Often doctors will prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI).
These neurotransmitters increase serotonin which has been seen to have a good influence on mood. However, they are not perfect for everyone. These medications require a tailored approach. Make sure to get a prescription from a practicing healthcare provider before trying SSRIs
Find Freedom at Inner Balance
If you or a loved one is struggling with the effects of trauma, inner balance can help. Our nurturing staff is dedicated to finding solutions that work best for you.