What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and How Does It Develop?
When you think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you probably think of war veterans. You may have even heard of it referred to as “shell shock.” This is the most popular example of PTSD in media and is certainly a highly affected group. However, PTSD can affect more types of people than soldiers. On par with combat exposure, many types of traumatic events are the root of thousands of cases of PTSD every year.
What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
PTSD is a mental health disorder that affects six out of every 100 people in the United States. Though it’s not as common as other mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, PTSD still affects millions of people worldwide. While it is often associated with combat veterans, PTSD can affect anyone who has gone through a distressing or life-threatening situation. This disorder can significantly impact a person’s emotional well-being, relationships, and daily functioning. Understanding PTSD and its symptoms is crucial for both those who may be experiencing it and those who wish to support them.
So, what is PTSD? The PT part stands for post-traumatic; this means that the disorder can develop after a traumatizing event is experienced or witnessed. It’s important to note that just because you went through trauma doesn’t mean you have PTSD. However, if you’ve experienced trauma, you should be extra aware of the signs of this condition.
The S in PTSD stands for stress. This is a crucial part of the disorder. When you experience a traumatic event, you become extremely stressed. In your brain, stress causes abnormal neural activity; electric signals and hormones are released in order to protect you from the perceived danger. This is normal for dangerous situations, like getting in a car accident. That neural activity is a survival tactic that allows you to react quickly and make important decisions that could save your life. A problem may arise, however, if your brain goes into stress mode when there isn’t any real danger.
Experiencing something stressful can make a lasting impression on your brain. The more upsetting the event, the bigger that impression is. Take this example: you get into a car accident one day in which your vehicle rolls over and the airbags deploy. That’s a really scary situation, even if you walk away with no physical injuries. The stress levels in your brain and body will be off the charts during and right after the accident.
Additionally, the next time you get into a vehicle, even if it’s days or weeks later, you may feel anxious or stressed again. Your brain is remembering the stress and trauma from the last time you rode in a car and anticipating danger. You may be able to ride in the car even though you’re a bit uncomfortable. Maybe in a few months, you won’t feel nervous at all. This would be a mild case of PTSD.
When the traumatic event is even bigger, more upsetting, or happens repeatedly to one person, PTSD can be more severe as a result. People with moderate to severe PTSD may experience feelings of anxiety and fear even when there are no stimuli to remind them of the event. They may even have episodes of “reliving” the event, during which they feel as if the trauma is happening all over again.
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Signs and symptoms of PTSD to look out for in yourself and others include the following:
- Intrusive thoughts or memories, especially ones related to the event
- Avoiding reminders of the traumatic incident
- Changes in mood and behavior
- Guilt, shame, or anger
- A sense of detachment from others
- Increased reactivity to stimuli
- Insomnia, especially if avoiding nightmares
- Emotional numbing
- Restlessness or finding it difficult to relax
- Episodes of reliving the event sometimes called flashbacks
What Can Cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
PTSD can be caused by anything that inflicts trauma on a person. There is no event too big or too small; if the victim is traumatized, they have the potential to develop PTSD. Different people have different thresholds for trauma as well. What is traumatizing to one person may not be traumatizing to another. All instances of trauma and PTSD are valid and deserve serious attention.
Exposure to Violence
Witnessing violence, whether as a direct observer or someone nearby during a traumatic event, can have profound and lasting effects on your mental health. It can be deeply traumatic, triggering a stress response that overwhelms your coping mechanisms. This response includes the release of stress hormones like adrenaline, preparing the body to respond to the perceived threat. The emotional impact is significant, often leading to feelings of fear, horror, helplessness, and grief. These intense emotions can persist, causing persistent negative changes in mood and cognition, which are characteristic symptoms of PTSD.
Witnesses to violence may also experience intrusive memories of the event, such as flashbacks or nightmares. They might develop avoidance behaviors, steering clear of places, people, or situations that remind them of the traumatic event. This can disrupt their daily life and functioning. Avoidance can become a coping mechanism, but in the end, it can also hold them back from healing.
Some examples of exposure to violence include:
- Being a survivor of gun violence
- Living in a country at war
- Witnessing domestic abuse in your home
- Living in an area controlled by organized crime or gangs
- Losing a loved one to a violent crime
Being a Victim of Violence
Experiencing violence as a victim or target can be extremely traumatizing. PTSD often emerges as a psychological response to such traumatic events.
Violence can take a lot of different forms. In some cases, it’s physical: being beaten up, raped, or attacked with weapons are just a few examples. These are things that harm your body and your physical well-being. However, violence can be psychological as well. Victims of muggings are oftentimes not psychically harmed in a significant way, but they may have been held at gunpoint or knifepoint during the incident. This is a form of violence as well. The intense fear being used to manipulate the victim can be extremely harmful to their mental well-being.
In cases of physical violence, psychological violence is often in play as well. Sexual assault and rape are an example of this. While the harm done to the victim’s physical body is terrible, the act itself exerts extreme power over the victim, leaving them feeling helpless and dehumanized. In many cases, sexual violence is intended to strip the victim of all sense of agency and self-worth. This is psychological violence committed through an act of physical violence. Both types are deeply traumatizing and can lead to PTSD.
Neglect and Emotional Abuse
Two of the most common causes of PTSD in children are neglect and emotional abuse. They can also affect adults, however, and the trauma of these events can follow you throughout your life.
Neglect is the ongoing failure of the parental figure to meet their child’s physical, emotional, and mental needs. This can include things like failing to feed, clothe, or bathe their child, as well as leaving their children unattended for inappropriate lengths of time. It can also take the form of a lack of caring, loving attention that children need to develop self-esteem and healthy social relationships. Neglect is considered a form of child abuse by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and it is the most common type of child abuse.
Emotional abuse is defined as any action, verbal or otherwise, that causes serious emotional harm to another person. While everyone says something mean occasionally, abuse occurs in a malicious cycle of repeated behaviors meant to harm the victim in some way. Emotional abuse can take many different forms, but some examples include:
- Constant criticizing
- Not respecting boundaries
- Social isolation
The most common instances of emotional abuse occur from parents to their children and between romantic partners. However, abuse can be present in any relationship, which is why it’s so important to understand the signs. Neglect and emotional abuse can cause severe trauma and potentially lead to PTSD.
Hospitalization and medical issues can be deeply distressing experiences that, in some cases, lead to the development of PTSD. The emotional and physical strain of medical conditions, coupled with the anxiety-inducing environment of hospitals, can contribute to the onset of PTSD. This phenomenon can occur with any health condition.
Hospitalization itself can be a traumatic experience. The unfamiliar surroundings, invasive procedures, and a sense of loss of control over your life can be deeply unsettling. Moreover, medical procedures can be physically painful and emotionally distressing, especially if you have little prior experience with them.
For some individuals, traumatic events may occur during their hospitalization, such as medical errors, complications, or emergency surgeries. These events can further contribute to the development of PTSD, as they can trigger intrusive memories, avoidance behaviors, and heightened arousal, which are characteristic of the disorder.
Pregnancy and childbirth are medical experiences unique to women. While they can be extremely joyful, they can also be marked by complications and health issues. These can range from severe conditions like preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, or placental abruption to more common but distressing experiences such as difficult labor, miscarriage, or stillbirth. Complications like these can be physically painful and emotionally traumatic. Witnessing one’s own body undergo unexpected changes and coping with the fear of harm to oneself or the unborn child can lead to significant distress.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children
Children are the most vulnerable group in our society. At young ages, their brains are highly impressionable, and their threshold for mental harm is much lower than most adults. They haven’t had the time or experience yet to build up the resilience needed to shield them from potential traumas. This is why knowing the signs and symptoms of PTSD in children is so important, so they can receive the help they need early on in life.
The symptoms of PTSD can be unique in children compared to adults. Some of those symptoms include:
- Nightmares and sleep issues
- Wetting the bed
- Increased startle response
- Not remembering parts or all of the trauma incident
- Outbursts of emotion, such as anger
- Overattachment to parental figures
- Detachment from parental figures
- Troubles in school
- Physical ailments such as stomachaches
- Reenacting traumatic events through play
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Women
Women experience PTSD at a higher rate than men. Studies in US communities found that the rate of PTSD in women is two to three times higher than in men. Women and men experience about the same amount of trauma, but the type of trauma and how it is processed cause this gender disparity.
The reason for this can be at least partially attributed to the increased risk of sexual violence against women. Because of the physical, psychological, and emotional effects that sexual assault and rape have on the victim, these experiences carry one of the highest risks for PTSD. While sexual violence can happen to anyone regardless of gender, women are disproportionately affected. Women are also more likely to experience trauma in established, close relationships, such as with a romantic partner. On the other hand, men are more likely to experience traumatic events through accidents or violence from strangers. When someone you trust, love and depend on hurts you, the effects can be even more devasting. These factors together give a possible explanation for the gender gap in PTSD cases.
Women may also experience PTSD in a unique way. The symptoms that present can be slightly different, which can affect the diagnosis process. Because of this, the average time that it takes women with PTSD to be diagnosed is four times longer than men.
Some of the more common symptoms in women with PTSD include:
- Emotional numbness
- Avoidance behaviors
- Depression and anxiety after the event
- Increased startle response
Women are less likely than men to use drugs and alcohol to cope with PTSD; however, it still happens. Substances can take the edge off of feelings of anxiety or distract from the darkness of depression, but using them to self-medicate can easily lead to substance use disorder (SUD). The mental, physical, social, and financial strain of addiction is not worth the temporary relief substances provide.
Treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
The treatment of PTSD should be tailored to the needs of each patient. At Avery Lane, we customize the treatment plans of all of our clients so they get the help they need in a way that feels right for them. In cases of PTSD, there are many options and combinations of treatment to consider.
Psychotherapy is the most common therapeutic intervention for people with PTSD. Also called talk therapy, it’s an effective way to work through trauma and process what happened to you. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that can help you reshape negative thought patterns, which are common with PTSD. You might believe that you are at high risk for a repeat of the traumatic event or that you are to blame for it somehow. CBT can help you face these thoughts and rewire your brain to a more neutral and rational thought pattern.
Exposure therapy can also be helpful in some cases of PTSD. In exposure therapy, your therapist will guide you through facing triggers connected to your trauma. This may be upsetting at first, but your therapist will continually remind you that you are in a safe, controlled environment. Eventually, your brain will react with less and less fear each time. The goal of exposure therapy is to desensitize yourself to triggers so that you can live a life uncontrolled by anxiety and paranoia.
Certain medications may also be prescribed to help manage symptoms of PTSD. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, and drugs that prevent nightmares can all be helpful options. At Avery Lane, we believe that prescription medication can be a great tool for some people. If this is something you’d like to consider in your healing journey, talk to your case management team.
If you or someone you care about shows signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, getting professional help is vital to their well-being. Avery Lane provides residential and outpatient treatment programs for a wide variety of mental health conditions, including PTSD and SUD. Here, you can receive the rest and healing that you need for mind, body, and soul. Connect with other women who have similar struggles and empower each other through group therapy. The best thing you can do for yourself or a loved one in pain is reach out for support. Avery Lane is here for you, and help is just a call away. Connect with us by calling (800) 270-2406.