Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become one of the most well-known mental illnesses. It is often spoken of in the context of survivors of sexual and physical assault, car crashes, and home intruders, military veterans and survivors of war, and people who have lost loved ones.
PTSD occurs when an individual who went through trauma continues to experience associated symptoms. These effects include vivid flashbacks, sleep problems, severe anxiety, and more. The disorder begins to impair the person’s life, making it difficult to function on a daily basis.
However, post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms are common in most survivors of trauma. It is natural that we react physically and emotionally to having experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Our bodies go into fight or flight mode, and the consequences are intense.
PTS is a normal response to trauma. It is only when these symptoms present very intensely and do not go away over time that a person can be diagnosed with PTSD. It is generally diagnosed if the symptoms continue impairing the person’s life after more than a month.
Since we know that PTSD is a fairly common disorder that can be debilitating, and we usually know when we have been through a trauma, is there anything we can do to prevent PTS from becoming a disorder?
The answer is complicated. There is no real consensus on why some people develop PTSD and others don’t after experiencing the same trauma. As such, it is difficult to identify at-risk individuals early on. Furthermore, while most people with PTSD experience PTS in the days following the trauma, some only experience a delayed response.
In other words, treatment of PTS cannot be selective. Every survivor of or witness to trauma may benefit from trauma counseling and treatment.
It is also pertinent that many treatments for PTSD are not relevant for people with PTS in the first days and weeks. Exposure therapy, for example, is only possible after time has passed and the person is still avoiding the trigger.
Fortunately, there are ways to treat PTS. However, they require work that people who have just experienced trauma struggle with.
PTSD essentially occurs because the person’s body continues to react to the trauma. A month after they experienced the traumatic event, their body is still flooding with adrenaline, coiled and ready to pounce, or overly alert. The best way to prevent this is by processing the trauma in the days that follow it.
The trauma response remains when the feelings are avoided. Instead of letting go of those feelings, the body continues to react as the threat remains ever present in the person’s mind. By processing the trauma, you can lower the likelihood of developing PTSD.
Processing trauma requires a commitment to feeling the strong emotions that you are avoiding. This involves letting yourself feel pain that you’d rather avoid. Once the pain has been felt, the trauma is no longer something you’re keeping at arm’s length and thereby keeping around.
This is no quick fix or simple solution. To process trauma, you will need to speak through the event with someone you trust, have a therapist guide you through feeling the emotions without judgment, and maintaining a strong connection to your support system.
PTSD cannot be avoided entirely, but you can lower the risk that it will develop if you start processing the trauma early on. Avoiding it now only means you will have to confront it later.