What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Many people have heard the term “PTSD” in public discourse, particularly regarding issues of sexual assault and military combat, but aren’t totally clear on what it is or how it works in the brain. While our knowledge of trauma is constantly growing, here’s a basic overview of what clinicians and researchers know about PTSD so far:
PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by a neurobiological response to trauma. Simple enough–but 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, like parental divorce or non-violent bullying. Most incidents of PTSD are responses to “Big-T” traumas.
According to one survey, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among American adults is estimated to be almost 6.8%, meaning that roughly 7 out of every 100 people will experience it at some point. Its symptoms often develop within three months of a traumatic event, but can make themselves known as late as several years after the trauma.
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 tentative to share our experiences with others, trusted loved ones can provide invaluable emotional support. Additionally, they might have observed changes in our behavior that we are less conscious of, like increased alcohol use or a more negative affect (sad appearance).
Sometimes it’s difficult to identify people in our lives who can provide the social support we need. In these instances, working with an empathetic and trauma-informed therapist can be particularly important, since they can provide us with the encouragement, recognition, and reflection.
Reduce other stressors
Processing a traumatic event uses up a lot of our mental resources, which can make us more sensitive to everyday stressors like work and family. Are there any aspects of your life that are causing you additional stress when you’re trying to focus on healing from trauma? 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 distress. In some cases, we may be able to talk with our supervisors and admit that we have a lot on our plate right now and would like 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 medical information on the internet, it may be tempting to self-diagnose or 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 like a general practitioner, therapist, or psychiatrist. 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 and will be able to name at least one (or ideally, up to three) trauma-specific treatments that they are trained in, why they chose those treatments, and how the treatments help ease trauma symptoms. All trauma therapies follow a basic treatment pattern: safety and stabilization, processing the trauma, and integration of new self/future.
Be mindful that there are some practitioners who claim to be trauma-informed just because they sat in on a one-hour trauma training five years ago, or something equally superficial. To clarify whether your practitioner has undergone significant training, you can simply ask them where they trained, what they trained in, and for how long. Any worthwhile practitioner will be more than happy to answer those questions for you.
What can I expect?
Your clinician can work with you to create an informed treatment plan that addresses your unique needs and fits into your life. Before meeting with someone, we recommend making a list of any unusual symptoms you’re experiencing and any questions you may have. You may be surprised to find that symptoms you had never associated with PTSD, like stomach aches or jaw pain, are related to your experience of trauma.
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). While the standard forms of CBT and psychodynamic therapy do not necessarily incorporate trauma-focused solutions, both can be successfully adapted to treat trauma.
In recent years, cutting-edge 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 to help you move past maladaptive coping mechanisms. 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.