What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Many people have heard the term “PTSD,” particularly regarding issues of sexual assault and the military. Yet not all of us are totally clear on what it is or how it works. While our knowledge of trauma is constantly growing, here’s a basic overview of what clinicians and researchers know so far.
PTSD is essentially our brain’s response to trauma. What counts as trauma? According to the American Psychological Association, trauma “is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”
Major, “Big-T” traumas often involve a perceived threat to our safety and wellbeing, like an attack or horrible accident. Yet it’s also important to recognize the significance of “little-t” traumas, incidents that are not necessarily life-threatening but can still have a powerful effect on our mental health. These may include parental divorce or non-violent bullying.
Most incidents of PTSD are responses to “Big-T” traumas. Its symptoms often develop within three months of a traumatic event, but can make themselves known as late as several years after the trauma. Often, people don’t actually realize when they are living with PTSD. They have come to view their symptoms as the norm, or signs of personal weakness.
Symptoms fall into several categories, including re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares), avoidance (avoiding places or thoughts associated with the event), arousal and reactivity (being easily startled, having trouble sleeping), and general cognitive or mood-related symptoms (feelings of guilt, difficult remembering aspects of the incident, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, etc). Overall, PTSD can cause major functional impairment in all areas of a person’s life.
How can we cope with PTSD?
Seek out social support
While many of us are understandably hesitant to share our experiences, trusted loved ones can provide valuable emotional support. Additionally, they might have observed changes in our behavior that we are less conscious of, like increased alcohol use or a tired appearance.
Sometimes it’s difficult to identify people in our lives who can provide the support we need. Working with an empathetic and trauma-informed therapist can be particularly important, since they can provide us with the encouragement and understanding.
Reduce other stressors
Processing a trauma uses up a lot of our energy, which can make us more sensitive to everyday stressors. Are there any aspects of your life that might cause you additional stress while you’re trying to focus on healing? Identify these stressors, and think of ways to either cut them out of your life or to break them into smaller steps.
For example, maybe a major work project is causing a lot of stress. We may be able to talk with our supervisors, admit that we have a lot on our plate right now, and ask to shift leadership to someone else or put the project on the backburner. When this isn’t possible, we can try to ease the process by breaking our project into small, less intimidating steps.
Talk with a trauma-informed practitioner
This is the most important step when dealing with PTSD and its related symptoms. With a never-ending flood of information on the internet, it may be tempting to tackle your symptoms alone. But while online resources can be valuable and provide genuine help (hence the creation of our free trauma resource library at the Resilient Brain Project), it’s crucial to discuss your experiences with a trauma-informed medical professional. It’s important to note that most practitioners are not trauma-informed, so this step may require a little research. If you need help locating a trauma-informed practitioner in the DMV, feel free to email email@example.com and we’ll set you on the right track.
How do I know if someone specializes in trauma?
It’s okay to ask! Any therapist who has trauma-specific training will welcome the question. They will also be able to name at least one trauma-specific treatment they’re trained in and how it helps ease symptoms.
Be mindful that there are some practitioners who claim to be trauma-informed, but really aren’t. There’s a difference between taking one hour-long class in trauma-informed care and studying it for years. To clarify whether your practitioner has undergone significant training, you can simply ask them a few questions:
- Where did they train?
- What specifically did they train in?
- How long were they there?
Any worthwhile practitioner will be more than happy to answer those questions.
What can I expect?
Your clinician can work with you to create an informed treatment plan that fits into your life. Before meeting with someone, we recommend making lists of any symptoms you’re experiencing and any questions you may have.
Consider which type of therapy is best for you
As our knowledge about trauma grows, so do our methods for treating it. You’re likely familiar with the idea of talk therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (which seeks to identify and change unhealthy thought and behavioral patterns) and psychodynamic treatment (which focuses on early-life experiences and the ways that they continue to influence our lives). Both of these approaches can be adapted to treat trauma.
In recent years, brain-based therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Brainspotting have become popular choices for coping with trauma. Rather than centering around a verbal interaction between you and your therapist, these therapies focus more on your internal experience. The effectiveness of EMDR in particular has been repeatedly confirmed in neuropsychological studies, and the International Society For Traumatic Stress Studies has rated it a “Level A” treatment, the highest level possible.
No matter how you choose to cope with your trauma, know that you are supported and not alone. If you have any questions regarding trauma, its symptoms, or the treatment modalities described above, feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org and one of our trained therapists will provide you with a thorough response ASAP.
Make sure to acknowledge your hard work each time you complete a step in the process! Managing your everyday life while coping with PTSD isn’t easy, and your efforts deserve recognition.
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.