While the world slowly becomes more understanding of mental health issues, one condition that’s still yet to be fully understood is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
While the condition’s name sounds pretty self explanatory, there’s a lot more to it that meets the eye.
Typically associated with soldiers who have fought on the frontlines, ‘trauma’ can come in all shapes and sizes, and affects every person differently. While one event may leave lasting impressions on one person in a certain way, it may have a completely different effect on someone else.
Trauma is an unfortunate part of life, with 70% of adults believed to experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime; 20% of those who have experienced a traumatic event will then go on to develop PTSD, according the .
Dr Jane McNeill, a chartered psychologist who specialises in Anxiety Disorders and PTSD, explained to what the condition is and its symptoms:
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder caused by stressful, frightening or distressing events. It’s defined as an individual having experienced a traumatic event, either in person or vicariously. For example, if they were exposed to death, serious injury or sexual violence – actual or threatened.
Symptoms of PSTD include what’s known as ‘intrusions’ – thoughts, memories, flashbacks and nightmares, for instance. People living with PTSD may also find they experience avoidance behaviours, causing them to avoid places, situations, thoughts or memories that remind them of the event.
Dr McNeill continued:
It may also be that they experience significant mood changes, and often people who suffer with PTSD have cognitive distortions, believing that ‘it’s my fault’, ‘I’m unsafe’. Common symptoms also include hyperarousal: poor sleep, hyper-vigilance, irritability, startle response – expecting something negative to happen at any time. These symptoms will have continued for more than one-month following the event.
Dr McNeill also defined exactly what ‘trauma’ is:
Trauma is derived from the Greek word for “wound”. Traumatic events can be wide-ranging – examples could include accidents, illness, bereavement, divorce, terrorist attack, war, torture, sexual violence, domestic violence, genocide. This list is by no means exhaustive. However, to be diagnosed with PTSD the individual is likely to have felt extreme helplessness and or horror in the face of this event or events.
One person who lives with PTSD is 26-year-old Hannah from Birmingham. Her symptoms started as a child after she endured childhood grooming and sexual abuse by a family friend. While this started Hannah’s symptoms, a series of medical traumas and other sexual traumas have also played a part in her condition.
As a child and as a teenager, I thought I was crazy. My sleep was plagued by nightmares, including recurrent nightmares that still haunt me during times of heightened stress. One specific dream involved being drowned or suffocated repeatedly and I would wake up still unable to breathe and I’d be left thrashing around in my bed struggling to take a breath again. I became obsessive about checking locks because I never felt safe, hypervigilance invaded every aspect of my life, I lost trust in everyone, I could not sleep in the dark and I felt numb or disassociated the majority of the time.
As a coping mechanism in her adolescence, Hannah turned to drugs and alcohol to ‘avoid facing the emotional impact’ of what she had been through.
I lived in a near-constant state of emotional detachment or disassociation to cope. I continued to struggle with nightmares and I could not sleep until I’d checked the house was locked up tight multiple times. Flashbacks haunted me every day, especially by people who think paedophile jokes are hilarious, and I avoided visiting some family members because I had to travel past the house where the majority of the abuse took place.
As Hannah grew older she said she convinced herself that she was OK and began to cope better, but her PTSD was triggered again three years ago after her abuser found her on LinkedIn. She found herself under a ‘constant state of hypervigilance’ and once again turned to drugs and alcohol to ‘numb’ the pain of it all.
Eventually Hannah found herself consumed by suicidal thoughts and returned to her counselling sessions where she was asked if she had ever been diagnosed with PTSD. While she had been previously diagnosed with anxiety and depression, PTSD was never mentioned to the then 23-year-old. After some research, Hannah soon realised it was in fact PTSD she had been living with and found her diagnosis as ‘an incredible relief’.
Hannah said she now ‘living and thriving’ with her PTSD and learning to cope with its symptoms with the help of counselling and frequent check-ins with her doctor.
At first, I was resistant to the idea because I thought my trauma was not severe enough. Thankfully, with a ton of research, I realised that PTSD can be induced by any type of trauma and that there is no such thing as not being traumatised enough for mental illness. Finally receiving a diagnosis was an incredible relief. I wasn’t losing my mind and there were routes available to me that did not involve a constant cycle of self-destruction.
If you think you may be living with PTSD, Dr McNeill recommends visiting your GP or a mental health professional who can give you advice on treatments available and what may work best for you. An assessment by a professional is needed before a diagnosis can be made.
In terms of coping strategies, Dr McNeill advised the following:
Take time to focus on your breathing. When we’re feeling anxious, we inevitably find ourselves breathing in more oxygen and that increases our cortisol and adrenaline levels in the bloodstream. Do some colour breathing where you think of a colour and imagine breathing it in through your nose, into your lungs, and when you breathe out, imagine filling your whole body with that colour. Do this four times and you will find this helpful.
Dr McNeill also stressed the importance of speaking to friends and family – an important method to ‘help your brain process the events’. Physical health is also as important as mental health, so small things like eating well and getting fresh air everyday can be hugely beneficial. Dr McNeill added: ‘Look after your sleep, but if you’re struggling, don’t stress too much about it – the more you worry about your sleep the less likely you’ll sleep well.’
And, importantly, be kind to yourself. At the end of the day, we’re all doing the best we can.