Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Thanks to characters such as Georgie in the popular BBC series ‘Our Girl’, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is increasingly receiving the recognition it deserves, and with it, slowly becoming destigmatised across popular culture and wider society.  So what exactly is PTSD and is there a cure?  Clinical Psychologist, Dr Emily Smyth, explains it to us.

PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that is triggered by exposure to, or witnessing of a traumatic event. The trauma itself may vary considerably from war and torture, sexual or physical assault, natural or man-made disasters, terrorist and hostage situations, road traffic accidents, to loss of a loved one or diagnosis of a life-threatening illness.

Interestingly, not everyone will go on to develop PTSD after a trauma, and two people who have endured the same traumatic event may in fact respond very differently to it. With time, many people will be able to process what they’ve been through, and initial trauma reactions such as nightmares and sleep disturbance will gradually dissipate. However, it’s estimated that 50% of all survivors of sexual assault will develop PTSD, and as we might expect, prolonged and repeated exposure to trauma will significantly increase someone’s vulnerability to it. This is why PTSD is so commonly seen in veterans, refugees, survivors of torture and childhood abuse.

Cognitive theory suggests that for those people who do go on to develop PTSD, information processing during a traumatic event has likely been disrupted as a person has entered into ‘survival mode’. Whilst this serves a very adaptive function at the time of a trauma, it is hypothesised that this information processing disturbance interferes with normal memory formation in the brain. In other words, the memory of the trauma is not formed properly and may be missing pieces – like parts of a puzzle, and the memory is not stored away properly in the correct part of the brain – the hippocampus.

In PTSD, common emotional reactions include depression, fear, guilt, shame and anger, and 3 core symptoms which indicate a likely diagnosis include:

  • Re-experiencing: the vivid, intrusive and multisensory re-living of a trauma memory as if it were happening again now, including flashbacks, intrusive memories, nightmares and dissociation.
  • Hyperarousal: feeling persistently ‘on guard’, jumpy and alert to signs of possible danger, making a person feel highly anxious and irritable.
  • Avoidance: avoiding people, places and activities in an attempt to not think, talk about, or be reminded of the trauma.

PTSD is a severe mental health condition, and the evidence suggests that sadly, it is unlikely to go away by itself if left untreated. However, the good news is that, YES – PTSD CAN BE TREATED EFFECTIVELY WITH THE CORRECT, SPECIALIST, EVIDENCE-BASED TRAUMA THERAPY. Most importantly, these trauma therapies will involve a trauma-processing stage, where the trauma memories are elaborated, processed and updated with information we know now (for example, ‘I survive’). This important element of trauma-therapy helps to fill in the missing pieces of the memory and store it away properly in our brains, so the memories stop being triggered and re-experienced in the present moment. Two other important elements of trauma-therapy entail a stabilisation stage, where you will learn about what PTSD is and develop grounding strategies to manage re-experiencing symptoms, and lastly, a ‘re-claiming my life’ stage where you will address beliefs, emotions and behaviours that developed or changed as a result of the traumatic event.

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Article written by Dr Emily Smyth, Clinical Psychologist.