Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a specific anxiety disorder brought on by a disturbing life event. This can be a personal event- something you experience yourself- or something you have witnessed. For most people, time and self-care are sufficient for coping with trauma. It is always difficult to adjust to life after trauma; but when symptoms progressively become worse or are present for months or years, you may be experiencing PTSD.
There are many reasons why someone can develop PTSD. Most commonly we think of veterans who have experienced trauma in war. PTSD can be caused by sexual violations, witnessing or threatening death, intense violence, accidents, and anything else that an individual interprets as traumatic. There is no explanation to why only certain people develop PTSD; however, doctors assume that it is due to genetics, co-existing mental health problems, or prolonged exposure to trauma.
Symptoms of PTSD
For most people, symptoms will appear approximately one month after the trauma. This is not a set time period, however, as some people may not experience symptoms until years later. PTSD symptoms are separated into four categories: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thoughts or mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. You do not need to experience symptoms from each category to have PTSD. Symptoms vary on individual stress levels, time, environmental factors, and more.
Negative changes in thinking and mood
Changes in physical and emotional reactions
How is PTSD treated?
There are a variety of treatment options available to manage PTSD. Psychotherapy is one of the most common forms of PTSD treatment, as there are a variety of techniques created specifically for managing trauma.
Exposure therapy is an extremely popular PTSD treatment. People tend to avoid the things they fear; but over time, this avoidance makes the fear worse. In a safe environment, you will work together with a trained professional to reimagine the situations triggering your PTSD. Imaginal exposure is the most commonly practiced form of exposure therapy for patients with PTSD. During imaginal exposure, you will be asked to recount your experience to reduce the emotional distress associated with it.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR) is another form of psychotherapy frequently used to treat PTSD. EDMR likens trauma to a physical wound: if something is blocking your recovery, the wound will only get worse. If you are unable to overcome negative emotions due to trauma, you will never be able to relieve your suffering.
EDMR is achieved in eight steps. One of these steps requires you to verbalize an aspect of trauma that gives you strong negative associations. As you talk through the trauma, your therapist will have you follow an external stimulus- such as their finger- with your eyes. This creates bilateral (side to side) movements that are said to connect the left and right hemispheres of your brain. When the two hemispheres are able to communicate effectively, it will become much easier to overcome the negative associations you are currently experiencing and transition to a place of positivity and recovery.
Cognitive processing therapy(CPT) encourages patients to challenge negative and maladaptive thoughts about their trauma. A written component is included in CPT. In addition to regular therapy, your therapist will want you to write a detailed description of your trauma and resulting emotions. You will read this description at your following sessions as your therapist asks questions designed to challenge the maladaptive thoughts you have created about the trauma. Over time, CPT will help you strengthen your self-esteem, trust, outlook on life, and more.