Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health diagnosis that stems from an individual’s exposure to one or more traumatic experiences. Experiencing a traumatic event does not necessarily guarantee that someone will develop PTSD, as a variety of factors influence one’s chances of developing it.
Resilience factors include access to a healthy support system, the ability to seek help from others, effective coping skills, and adaptive skills.
Risk factors include past exposure to stressful situations, past exposure to trauma, history of mental illness in self or family, lack of social support, and life stress.
Below are the signs and symptoms of PTSD, as outlined by the DSM V, which is the manual used to assess and diagnose mental health disorders. If you or someone you know is showing signs of PTSD, seeking help from a mental health professional can help reduce the intensity and frequency of these symptoms.
Exposure to traumatic events
While this may seem like an obvious point to make, exposure is identified in several ways:
- Directly experiencing the traumatic event(s).
- Personally witnessing the traumatic event(s) as they happen to someone else.
- Learning that traumatic event(s) happened to someone close.
- Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to unsettling details of traumatic event(s).
Type of Symptoms
Trauma has a tendency to get “stuck” in our minds, which can feel incredibly overwhelming. Intrusion symptoms are overwhelming and distracting, making it difficult to manage the tasks of daily living. These symptoms manifest differently in different people and can be experienced in the following ways:
- Intrusive Thoughts: Some experience recurrent and involuntary, and memories of the traumatic event(s); these memories seem to come out of nowhere and are intrusive and interrupt daily thoughts.
- Intrusive Dreams: Intrusive thoughts can also show up in dreams, which is not only distressing but also impacts the quality of sleep.
- Flashbacks: Some experience flashbacks, where they feel as if the traumatic event(s) are recurring; when this happens, people have difficulty feeling grounded in the moment and are often unaware of what is happening presently.
- Distressful Reminders: In many cases, people feel intense or prolonged distress when they are exposed to reminders of traumatic event(s).
- Body-based Reactions: Individuals can also have extreme physical reactions to cues that remind them of traumatic event(s).
Due to the overwhelming nature of PTSD, those experiencing it attempt to avoid stimuli associated with the traumatic event(s). Avoidance symptoms are efforts to push away negative feelings, and individuals may resort to unhealthy coping methods like substance use, social isolation, or efforts to detach from people or places which remind them of the traumatic event(s). Avoidance is categorized in two ways:
- Avoidance or efforts to avoid distressing thoughts, feelings, or memories associated with the traumatic event(s).
- Avoidance or efforts to avoid external reminders that arouse distressing thoughts, feelings, or memories associated with the traumatic event(s). External reminders can be people, places, topics, activities, songs, objects, or situations that prompt thoughts of the traumatic event(s).
Mood and Thought Symptoms
Those with PTSD experience changes in the way they feel and think. Negative alterations in mood and thoughts associated with the traumatic event(s) include the following:
- Inability to remember details of the traumatic event(s).
- Persistent negative beliefs about oneself (e.g., I am bad), others (e.g., I cannot trust others), or the world (e.g., the world is dangerous).
- Persistent thoughts of blame; individuals may blame themselves or others for the traumatic event(s).
- Persistent negative emotional state (e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame)
- Diminished interest or participation in significant activities; difficulty engaging in activities one previously found enjoyable.
- Feelings of detachment from others.
- Persistent inability to experience positive emotions like happiness, satisfaction or love.
Trauma impacts our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and it also impacts the body’s response to stress. Those with PTSD have a predisposition to experience emotional arousal and reactivity when they encounter stressful situations or trauma reminders. Arousal symptoms are as follows:
- Irritable behavior or angry outbursts with little or no provocation; such behavior manifests as verbal or physical aggression toward other people or towards objects.
- Recklessness or self-destructive behavior.
- Hypervigilance; a need to be overly alert to threats of safety and connection with others.
- Exaggerated startle response; tendency to easily jump, cry out, or twitch when startled.
- Difficulty with concentration and organization.
- Sleep disturbances, including difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and having restless sleep.
Dissociation is the feeling of being detached from the present moment. While dissociative symptoms are not considered criteria for PTSD, it is common for some to experience dissociative symptoms. There are two forms of dissociative symptoms:
- Depersonalization: Those who experience depersonalization feel detached from their thoughts and/or bodies and feel as if they are an outside observer of their thoughts and/or bodies. This feeling is often compared to watching oneself as if the present experience is a movie.
- Derealization: Those who experience derealization feel as if their surroundings are unreal. This makes reality feel distant, dreamlike or distorted.
Seeking help for PTSD can feel incredibly overwhelming, especially because of the deep desire to avoid reminders of the traumatic experience(s); however, therapists who are trained in the treatment of PTSD understand this fact and work to pace themselves and help their clients feel safe and comfortable throughout the therapeutic process. Engaging in professional treatment for PTSD can help individuals heal and regain control over their thoughts, feelings and actions.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to Ammirati Counseling to ask and inquire about support services that you can receive to help with overcoming feelings of depression, loneliness, stress or anxiety.