PTSD is a mental condition that affects millions across the globe.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 31, 2021. It has since been updated.
According to the Mayo Clinic, "post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it." Although the popular belief is that only veterans experience PTSD, the fact is that anyone who experiences trauma is susceptible to it.
Unlike other mental illnesses, PTSD is not a systemic illness. There are no preconditions or biological factors that cause it. It is more of a mental injury. It is a natural response to an overwhelming incident where the person might have been forced to feel helpless, overwhelmed, violated, or broken. Much like how a person who falls and hurts his arm incurs an injury and begins to bleed, a brain that is forced to experience or witness a traumatic event reacts with certain symptoms as a response to the trauma.
Much like other mental ailments, those battling PTSD need utmost care and compassion to heal. Here are first-hand accounts of some survivors of PTSD:
PTSD is not the person refusing to let go of the past. It is past that refuses to let go of the person.
I wake up every night at the same time, my heart beating rapidly, my hands trembling, my eyes looking out for the abuser. Only this time, he lives within my head and refuses to leave. I was 12 when he first entered my room. I am 58 and he hasn't left my head, yet.
I did not ask for the things I have been through. And certainly didn't ask for the things that my mind paints and repaints in flashback.
Imagine fighting a war long after it is over.
The traumatic event includes any situation or happening that can shock, overwhelm, violate, or distress a person. This includes abuse of any kind (emotional or physical), rape, sexual assault, wars (being a part of it or witnessing it), violent attacks or crimes, death of a loved one (violent or nonviolent), receiving a life-threatening diagnosis, being forced to be in an unsafe environment where the brain perceives potential threat, etc.
The first symptoms may start within a month of the traumatic event but at times it can even appear after years. The symptoms can interfere with a person's ability to function optimally at work or life and cause problems in relationships as well. The symptoms, frequency, and intensity may vary from person to person. The symptoms can be grouped into four categories:
1. Intrusive memories
3. Negative changes in thinking and mood
4. Changes in physical and emotional reactions
This includes recurring and unwanted memories about the event that causes distress and pain in the person. This can appear in the form of flashbacks as well where the person re-experiences the trauma as though it is happening again in the present, nightmares or disturbing dreams about the event, unexpected and uncontrollable reactions to a person, event, or object that reminds them of the event. You could also have emotional memories, where you remember how you felt during the trauma rather than recollecting what actually happened.
This includes taking the effort to avoid thinking or talking about the event, refusing to visit places or get involved with people or activities that remind them of the event, and making changes in life to stay away from any factor that could remind them of the event.
One of the biggest red flags of trauma is memory problems. Many people who have unprocessed childhood trauma often can't remember chunks of their early life. This is a defense mechanism the mind uses to guard against memories that can threaten the survival or sanity of the individual. This is why survivors of abuse, especially sexual abuse, have a hard time recollecting details. The risk is higher when the abuse happened early on and all the more so when the abuser is a close family member or someone the child trusted.
Apart from repressed memory, other symptoms include a sense of hopelessness, negative thoughts about the self which includes self-blame, feeling guilty or responsible for the event, low self-esteem, inability to feel emotional intimacy, fearing close relationships, feeling numb, and depersonalization (a state where you feel outside yourself or body or as though your thoughts and feelings are unreal or you feel like you are observing yourself living your life rather than actively living your life).
This category is also referred to as arousal symptoms. The brain that has been forced to survive by being on fight-flight-flee mode may find itself easily startled or scared. The person undergoing this will often be on guard and aroused to face potential danger. They may also have self-destructive patterns that indicate a degree of slow self-harm like excessive drinking or put themselves at high-risk situations like driving too fast or getting involved in extremely unsafe adventures. Other symptoms include insomnia and/or disturbed sleep, trouble focusing, overwhelming shame or guilt, irritability, angry or emotional outbursts, aggressive behavior, and automated responses to anything that reminds of the event.
If you find yourself experiencing one or more of the symptoms and/or have gone through trauma or abuse of any kind, reaching out to a professional therapist will help you set off on the path to healing. If meeting a professional seems overwhelming, talk to a trusted friend/family or you can dial the national or local hotline that assists people with mental health concerns. You didn't have a choice back then and had to face it all alone, but you do have a choice now. Talking to the right person about your fears or feelings can make a big difference.
Cover image credit: Getty Images | Illustration by Ponomariova_MariaDisclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.