PTSD & Its Symptoms
Introduction - What is PTSD
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder resulting from the exposure to intense stress or trauma. It is typically characterized by nightmares, numbness, avoidance, flashbacks, memory loss, anxiety, and/or repetitive thoughts about the traumatic event. Personality traits can have large implications on the intensity of PTSD as well.
Traumatic experiences make daily life difficult to navigate especially within the first few weeks of occurrence. However, if symptoms persist, PTSD may be the root cause. To be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms need to last longer than a month.
It is critical to understand which part of the brain is most active during a traumatic event. The Reptilian brain, or the brain stem area, takes control. This area is responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes. In other words it operates functions of the body acting without conscious efforts. The reason the brain stem is referred to as the Reptilian brain is because it is the oldest portion of the developed brain.
A major shift in the entire operating system of the body takes place. Non-essential bodily functions are shut down. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in rapidly increasing stress hormones like cortisol. The major difference between those who recover from trauma and those who don’t lies in the brain's ability to shift away from the lingering Reptilian brain functioning. Essentially - those with PTSD suffer from an ongoing processing of the reptilian brain functioning. Those who recover return to normal levels and walk away without PTSD or limited side effects.
Common PTSD Symptoms
Symptoms of PTSD are usually identified in four categories. Although symptoms will vary from person to person.
Intrusive thoughts. Also experienced as reliving the event. These unwanted memories or intrusive thoughts present themselves at any time. Symptoms can manifest through nightmares, flashbacks, sights, smells, and sounds associated with the traumatic event.
Avoidance. Simply avoiding speaking or thinking about the traumatic experience to avoid associated pain is a common symptom of PTSD. In addition, avoiding places, activities, or other people triggering the traumatic event.
Negative thoughts and feelings. One of the most common symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder lies in the emergence of negative thoughts and feelings towards oneself and others. Common thoughts and feelings include: ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt, and shame. Activities that were once enjoyable may lack their appeal. Estrangement and detachment from previous relationships may result as well.
Changes in physical and emotional reactions. These changes can also be identified as arousal symptoms or hypervigilance. They may include irritability, angry outbursts, recklessness, being easily startled, having trouble sleeping, and self-destructive behavior.
One of the main lasting differences can be seen in emotional regulation versus emotional dysregulation. Before a traumatic event the ability to regulate emotions in an individual may have been normal however, post trauma, the propensity for emotional dysregulation increases. The ability to regulate these emotions becomes less and less feasible. The brain has undergone a major paradigm shift where the world no longer seems safe.
A full list of requirements leading to diagnoses can be found here at the DSM-5 main website. The DSM-5 is a commonly referenced manual for assessment and diagnoses of mental disorders. Each criteria lists a certain number of past experiences required in order to be officially diagnosed with PTSD.
PTSD symptoms will change over time and vary in intensity. Other life events or stress may exacerbate the disorder. Reminders and other triggers can play a large role as well.
If the above symptoms continue for more than a month, professional aid is oftentimes a necessary step. Seeking professional treatment for PTSD is the best way to mitigate the condition from worsening.
The Gender Gap in PTSD
Studies show females are twice as likely to develop PTSD than males. All trauma falls on a spectrum and depending on the person, lasting effects will vary. In the case for women the type of trauma they experience is categorically more prone to result in PTSD. Ultimately the disparity lies in the type of trauma and the coping strategy between males and females.
Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and abuse. Men on the other hand are more likely to experience physical trauma through accidents, combat, and assault. Sexual assault amongst women is so harmful that nearly all survivors, 95%, have resulting PTSD symptoms immediately following the assault.
Women’s ability to cope with stress and PTSD symptoms also differ greatly compared to men. Contrastingly to traditional fight or flight response women utilize a “tend and befriend” response. Befriending involves reaching out to loved ones for support while tending involves taking care of the people closest. When women have little or no support group, they tend to suffer more.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Causes
Post traumatic stress disorder can result from varying extreme circumstances. Any instance involving serious injury, sexual violation, or death can all be precursors of PTSD. Other common causes include:
Early life trauma especially in childhood
Professions and careers associated with stressful and traumatic events particularly in daily frequencies
Other mental health problems
Drinking, drug use, and other substance abuse
No support from family or friends
Relatives with a history of mental health problems
Differing and unique body adaptations and chemical responses. Primarily with the release of the stress hormone cortisol
Of all the occurrences directly linked to PTSD the most common include: military combat, physical abuse during childhood, sexual or physical assault, and accidents. In addition, any other extreme life threatening event may be a cause of PTSD.
Prevention & Treatment for PTSD
During the immediate days and weeks following a severely traumatic experience it is difficult to stop thinking about the event. Symptoms like fear, anxiety, anger, depression, and guilt are all symptoms stemming from the initial reaction to the trauma.
The key to preventing the trauma reactions from progressively worsening is timely help and support. This includes reaching out to support groups, friends, and professionals who are all willing to listen. Reaching out to others for support may prevent alcohol and drug misuse as well.