Imagine being thrust into your worst experience again and again. Imagine the world you once knew, safe and comforting, as a universe where bad things might and do happen. Imagine being unable to wake from a nightmare, where the greatest trauma of your life replays itself over and over again.
It’s an experience only too well understood by veterans of war, for whom this disorder was nicknamed shell shock. But it’s a malady that’s not only diagnosed in soldiers and emergency response personnel – many, many traumatic experiences have been reported to cause post-traumatic stress disorder, known widely as PTSD.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is an anxiety disorder developed after an individual becomes involved in, or witnesses, trauma. Although each person responds to trauma in a different way, prolonged or surprising exposure to harmful events can cause the development of PTSD, including violence, sexual abuse, vehicle crashes, witnessing death, surviving a major natural disaster, or even being the partner of an addicted individual.
A person can also experience what is known as secondary trauma. This occurs when an individual is caring for someone who has experienced something horrific, and although that event did not happen to him or her directly, the impact is just as significant.
Individuals who experienced trauma at an early age, or those who endured several or prolonged traumas, might be diagnosed with complex PTSD, which can also be referred to as EPCACE (enduring personality change after catastrophic experience) or DESNOS (disorders of extreme stress not otherwise specified). These patients report hostile distrust, constant feelings of hopelessness, fear and loneliness, challenges with emotional stability and loss of control, dissociative symptoms and suicidal ideation.
Everyone has stress. Is everyone at risk for PTSD?
Some are at higher risk than others. Those who have little to no support from friends or family members, those who have previously been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or other forms of mental illness, and those who experience repeated trauma are at a higher risk of PTSD.
How is PTSD treated?
Fortunately, PTSD can be treated through a variety of methods. Medication is an option, although many have found significant success through talking therapies, including trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is a preferred method for many in the mental health professional, and TF-CBT was specifically designed for the PTSD patient in mind. Many therapists devise an eight to 12 week program for clients.
Why don’t my friends and family understand?
It’s normal for those who have never experienced the symptoms of PTSD to understand the thought processes of a person with PTSD. Hopefully, you can lead them here so they are enlightened to your plight.
To the friends and family members of a person with PTSD:
- Give them time and allow them to talk at will. Don’t force them to explain.
- Give them permission to be upset. To you, they’re not talking about the present; they’re talking about the past. But for them, the past feels like the present, every day.
- Do not judge, dismiss, or belittle them.
- Respect their privacy and their space. Some sufferers of PTSD can’t stand to be touched; others can’t bear noise.
If you are with a person experiencing what is called a “flashback,” which is when a person relives the traumatic event, stay calm. It helps if you gently remind them of where they are in the present and that they are having a flashback. It is of utmost importance that you remain compassionate, composed and kind. As difficult as it may be for you, it is infinitely more painful for them.
After discovering the love of his life was an active addict, and had been throughout their five years of marriage, Milo Baker was devastated. He couldn’t sleep, only capturing two to three hours a night for months on end. His focus on work and the rest of the family was blurred. After spending half a decade focused on discovering the truth – rifling through deleted emails and phone records, scouring their household for clues, and hearing over and over how sorry she was, only to relapse again and again – Baker was diagnosed with complex PTSD.
“(My triggers) could be anything – something she says that she said before, a scene from a movie that reminds me of our situation, an alarm clock… literally anything is a trigger,” says Baker. Despite his wife – also a PTSD sufferer - having just celebrated a year of sobriety, Baker is still consciously aware of his ailment. His is an example of prolonged trauma; he is one of countless individuals who may not have fought in war, but who have been on another type of battlefield, and who now need help getting out.
“Talking it out helps. When I find safety is when I’m in a caring environment, when I can take my time and remind myself I’m here now, it’s present day, and my nightmares are just that – nightmares.
“I know I still have a way to go,” says Baker. “But it doesn’t feel like a life sentence anymore.”
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