Coping with PTSD isn’t easy.
While post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with military and first-responders, it impacts a wide range of people for an equally wide range of reasons.
The mental condition develops after a distressing event, which may involve anything from a roadside accident to a violent personal assault. If you experience post-traumatic stress disorder, you should give us a call.
In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at what causes trauma and how to cope with PTSD.
Dispelling Important PTSD Myths
PTSD is something we’ve been dealing with for decades – but it’s only with since the 80s that we’ve officially come to give it an actual psychiatric definition. Since then, there’s been a lot of time for PTSD myths to come about and be developed through pop culture references, media portrayals, and assumptions.
Let’s dispel and bust some of these myths, and talk a bit more about the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, and what it means to be diagnosed.
Firstly, PTSD is not a guaranteed condition. You can undergo an extremely harrowing experience, and not suffer the symptoms of a stress disorder. That doesn’t somehow make you soulless, or heartless, or devoid of the necessary capability to feel emotions. It also does not mean that if you suffer PTSD, you’re simply weak or overemotional.
The reality is that it’s not entirely clear why some people get PTSD and others don’t. There may be some correlation between how the brain creates dopamine in emotional situations and instances of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, but from what we can tell, it’s all really just a matter of a combination of factors including childhood traumas (when the trauma occurred), genetics, environmental factors and more. Some things are, in a way, set in stone – such as the fact that women are far more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD, despite the common trope that it’s a male veteran’s disorder.
Some experiences may trigger as trauma – others may not. What matters isn’t so much why a certain horrible event caused your PTSD, but rather that it did, and that you need treatment.
It gets weirder. You’d think PTSD naturally comes right after a traumatic event happens, but it could take months, years, and in some cases even decades before you’re affected by your trauma, although it’s still rather rare. In some cases, people go on living normal lives for twenty years, when they remember a childhood trauma and they’re hit with the symptoms of PTSD. There’s also no rules for exactly how long PTSD lasts, or whether it comes and goes. It could be part of a very severe grieving process, or it could haunt you for the rest of your life.
Because of the stigma with mental health, and the perceived weakness of admitting PTSD, it can be exceptionally hard for people to seek out help. So most try and just shrug it off. In some cases, such as when the disorder is temporary, you could hold out alone until it goes away. But if the disorder becomes too much for you to handle in your daily life, there is no reason you should struggle on alone. All that would create is a codependency between your PTSD and symptoms of depression, and eventually anxiety or another health issue.
Some people fear what PTSD may mean for them, or the people they live with. But PTSD doesn’t make you unpredictable, dangerous or violent, while it may be portrayed that way quite often. The symptoms of PTSD have more to do with being distant, depressed, guilt-driven and avoiding of most thoughts and other people. There is a higher instance of violent lash-outs among PTSD sufferers than most other people, but it’s never the norm. In fact, less than a tenth of diagnosed clients get violent.
Next, you can self-care your way to a treated condition. But it never hurts to seek out a little help nonetheless. Which leads us to a few myths regarding treatment.
PTSD treatment isn’t always about processing your trauma vividly. It’s a treatment method that can work, but as with all treatment methods, it’s also one that might not do a thing. We’re not cut from the same cloth – we’re individual people, and even our shared disorders are individual instances of mental health issues shaped by very individual and unique circumstances.
The first step to a treatment for PTSD is always a thorough diagnosis and a plan of action through an experienced therapist. Then, it’s important to place yourself in an environment and mental state of safety – and from there, you can begin to re-experience parts of the trauma. It doesn’t have to be the entire memory, or even a coherent structure of an event – stimuli can be enough. Then the normalization begins.
Overcoming PTSD isn’t just about resisting the pain – in fact, it’s the opposite. It truly begins by letting go.
How Trauma Works
Trauma is a bit like an actual physical wound, but one that won’t heal or clot.
The word itself is etymologically related to wounds, and not without good cause – when trauma occurs, it mentally destabilizes you in a uniquely individual way, undoes your ability to naturally react to stimuli in a certain way and has you constantly on edge, agitated and overreacting to specific emotions or stimuli as though it were happening all over again in real-time.
One way to describe it is a malfunction of your fight-or-flight response, so you’re “caught up” in every sense on whatever your traumatic event happened to be.
Trauma can be caused by a large variable of different situations, with the only common denominator being that they’re all quite horrible. From the loss of a loved one to a violent war zone memory, a home invasion or an act of sexual violence, the list is unfortunately long.
On the flipside, none of these events must cause post-traumatic stress. But they’re usually the culprits in cases where this disorder is diagnosed.
Once trauma has sunk its teeth into you, it’ll never let go – no amount of treatment will remove the memory from your mind. But you can dull its effects, and turn a wound into an old scar. PTSD isn’t a natural reaction to a horrible event, it’s a psychological overreaction – and it’s very treatable.
Coping with PTSD
Here are a few approaches to treating and coping with PTSD effectively.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Cognitive processing therapy
- Prolonged exposure therapy
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
- Psychotherapy (Talk therapy)
- Group therapy/family therapy
Each of these treatment options tackle post-traumatic stress in their own way, but they all aim to do the same thing – either desensitize you to the effects of your traumatic event and unravel the emotional pain and mess left behind by the trauma so it’s all laid out and easier for you to swallow, or help you cope with the symptoms first, and then tackle the deeper issue.
Cognitive processing and behavioral therapy, for example, addresses many different mental health issues by giving you exercises and positive coping mechanisms to replace inaccurate thinking, destructive behavior and improve your self-esteem and security.
Exposure therapy, brainspotting, and EMDR all work based on desensitization, with brainspotting utilizing somatic experiencing and physical brainspots to best determine how the trauma has affected you. Medication is typically prescribed in the form of antidepressants – SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the norm, insofar that they help you maintain your levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter needed to prevent depressive feelings.
Finally, one-on-one therapeutic sessions and family therapy can also help, if what you’re looking for is a large support network or a professional to talk to, to safely trigger your PTSD and overcome its symptoms in a secure environment.
Dealing with PTSD in a Loved One
There are several things you should know when living with someone with PTSD, specifically when trying to care for them as a friend, family member or significant other.
The first is that PTSD can be triggered, but isn’t always caused by outside stimuli. Sometimes a client can undergo an episode of post-traumatic stress without warning, and the resulting experience can make them agitated, or scared.
Contrary to popular belief, PTSD sufferers aren’t unusually violent – but they are in a state of constant alert, so they often feel a little more vulnerable, and protective thus.
While a trained therapist can help relieve the symptoms of the disorder by triggering it, that’s not something you should attempt. Do not coerce or pressure your partner or loved one into talking about their disorder, or experiences. Be careful not to push them around or give them instructions on how to feel or what to do to “distract themselves” – instead, take the lead and invite them to do fun, normal things.
As much as possible, preserve normalcy and manage your own stress. The last thing anyone needs is more fighting. You should realize that you’re dealing with a case of mental illness, and that means some compromise is in order given the emotional circumstances.
How to Deal with PTSD Anxiety Moving Forward
Probably the most concise final message to have on the topic is that PTSD is a condition you could be carrying around with you for a few weeks, months or years – or for the rest of your life. You have to work on the assumption that it’ll be with you forever – and as such, learn to live with it, in spite of it, and with it. Don’t be discouraged if therapy doesn’t help you completely soften the emotional blows of a traumatic experience. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t look back and feel like the past is well and truly a distant thing.
If your trauma will always be a major part of you, then therapy can help you drag that fact into a positive light. Perhaps you can let the experience shape you, help you grow into someone stronger and more empathic. Through whatever treatment you decide works best – from brainspotting to psychoanalysis – it’s never wrong to admit that you still think about your trauma, or that it affects you to this day, so long as you don’t feel enslaved or controlled by it.
It’s also important to remember that, with all the talk of moving on and moving past an event, we have to simultaneously put it out there that you’re almost never just going to forget, or be able to mentally excise what happened. The key is to find your own logic with which to effectively cut the chain tying you to that massive ball, and moving on – always seeing it cropping up in the horizon behind you, but never having to drag along throughout the rest of your journey.
And lastly – be strong. No matter where you are on your journey to a better life, it’s important never to give up on your treatment and the people around you who depend on you. If you’re with someone suffering from PTSD and are doing your best to help them, then remember that there are going to be times when your help isn’t welcome, and times when it’s sorely needed. The best you can do is be there under all circumstances, and be patient.
It’s never easy – but the reality is that life never really is. But you can carve out moments here and there where you’re surrounded by those you love, with no trace of sadness, illness or trouble. And those are the moments we all fight for, work for, and live for.