Living with trauma can feel incredibly draining. Everything might feel completely fine one moment, but then in the next, you might feel overwhelmed with flashbacks, disturbing thoughts, or outbursts of anger.
If left unchecked, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can interfere with an individual's ability to function in daily life. If you're living with PTSD, you might feel alone and helpless. You might have trouble connecting with friends, family members, and loved ones because it feels like nobody understands what you've experienced.
It's normal to experience intense emotions after a traumatic event, and life-threatening events can send your body into a heightened state of arousal and stress. Most of the time, these reactions will subside as part of your body's natural healing process. But if you're still on high alert months after the traumatic event, it's time to seek professional help.
Whether you're navigating life after a traumatic event or managing PTSD symptoms, here's everything you need to know about post-traumatic stress disorder and how to start the healing process.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Originally associated with combat, the name for this mental health condition was coined to describe the "shell shock" experienced by veterans. PTSD describes the psychological and physical symptoms that arise after any psychologically distressing experience.
Contrary to popular belief, trauma doesn't always come from experiencing combat or other major life experiences. Sometimes, it can come from big "T" experiences, such as a natural disaster, sexual assault, car accident, or serious injury, but other times, it can stem from little "t" experiences, like fender benders, bullying, or unhealthy relationships.
Trauma is a spectrum, and everyone responds to traumatic experiences differently. Ultimately, a traumatic event is any event that exceeds our capacity to cope—and that definition can vary from person to person. In some cases, the accumulation of little "t" events can lead to “full-blown” trauma.
How common is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder can feel isolating, but you're far from alone. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, anyone can develop PTSD at any age. This includes war veterans, adolescents, and people who have experienced sexual abuse, assault, accidents, disasters, or other serious events.
According to the National Center for PTSD, approximately seven or eight out of every 100 people experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men. In addition, research suggests that being from a minority group is connected with an increased risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event due to other increased risk factors. These risk factors may include less access to mental health care or experiencing more severe trauma.
Not everyone with PTSD has experienced a traumatic event. Sometimes, people can develop PTSD after a friend, family member, or loved one experiences danger. The unexpected death of a loved one can also contribute to the development of PTSD.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
People with PTSD experience disturbing thoughts and emotions related to their experience that may last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; feel sadness, fear, or anger; or withdraw from loved ones. Sometimes, people with post-traumatic stress disorder may avoid situations, people, or places that remind them of the traumatic event.
Different people experience different symptoms, and specific PTSD symptoms can vary in severity. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder fall into the following four categories:
- Intrusion: People with PTSD may experience intrusive thoughts, such as nightmares, recurring memories, or flashbacks. It might feel like you're reliving your worst memory or watching a recording of what happened, but you can't step in and change it.
- Avoidance: Many people with PTSD avoid reminders of the traumatic event, including people, places, activities, objects, and situations. You might try to avoid remembering the traumatic event, talking about what happened, or acknowledging your feelings.
- Alterations in cognition and mood: It might feel impossible to remember important aspects of the event. In some cases, negative thoughts and feelings can create distorted beliefs about oneself or others (i.e., "I can't trust anyone"). You might lose interest in the things you used to enjoy, withdraw from loved ones, or have trouble feeling positive emotions.
- Alterations in arousal and reactivity: Arousal and reactive symptoms might include increased irritability, angry outbursts, reckless behavior, or hypervigilance. It might feel like you can't relax because you have to stay on "high alert" at all times.
In the days following a traumatic event, many people will experience the above-mentioned symptoms. If these symptoms persist for weeks, an individual may be diagnosed with acute stress disorder—a temporary mental health problem that can occur within the first month of a traumatic event.
When mental health symptoms don't go away, they can evolve into PTSD. For a diagnosis of PTSD, these symptoms must last for more than one month. In addition, trauma symptoms must cause significant distress or problems in an individual's daily life.
What are the best treatment options for PTSD?
Although there's no cure for PTSD, there are multiple treatment options. It's important to remember that different people will benefit from different PTSD treatments, and there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for PTSD. Some components of your treatment plan might include:
Psychotherapy (talk therapy) is one of the most effective treatment for PTSD. During psychotherapy, you'll develop healthy stress management skills so you can better handle stressful situations. Ultimately, psychotherapy can help you take charge, gain control over your trauma, and move forward.
Some types of therapy used in the treatment of PTSD include:
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Trauma-focused CBT creates a safe space to process traumatic experiences. This type of talk therapy can help you recognize problematic thought patterns that hold you back—for example, self-blame and guilt following a traumatic event. By reframing your perspective and rationalizing the problem, you can adopt an alternative mindset.
- Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: EMDR helps reduce the distressing symptoms associated with PTSD. During EMDR sessions, your therapist will help you use eye movement techniques, such as back-and-forth movements, to help your brain process traumatic memories. EMDR can help you replace negative reactions to traumatic experiences with more positive ones.
- Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy, a type of behavioral therapy, helps you safely face distressing memories so you can learn effective coping skills. Exposure therapy can be especially helpful for traumatic memories and nightmares.
Depending on the severity of symptoms, your psychotherapist may recommend a combination of therapy and medication. Medication can also be helpful for individuals experiencing co-occurring mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and mood disorders.
Currently, only selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are FDA-approved for the treatment of PTSD, according to the American Psychological Association. While SSRIs are typically the first class of medications used in PTSD treatment, your health care provider may make exceptions based on your individual history of side effects, personal preferences, and specific mental health needs.
When PTSD symptoms interfere with your functioning, you need additional support beyond traditional once-per-week therapy sessions. Virtual intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) can help you find emotional support, access quality PTSD treatment, and start feeling better—all from the comfort of your own home.
At Charlie Health, our innovative intensive outpatient program (IOP) combines individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and medication management (if needed) to create an individualized treatment plan based on your specific needs. We'll work with you to understand your needs, choose the most effective treatment modalities, and develop aftercare strategies for sustainable healing.
In addition to professional treatment, self-care can help you build resilience and cope with the symptoms of PTSD. It's important to remember that self-care is not a substitute for psychotherapy, and talk therapy is often a necessary step to overcome trauma.
Some self-care strategies for coping with PTSD include:
- Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques. When you're feeling anxious, mindfulness can help you "ground" yourself and focus on the present moment. Yoga and meditation can help you cope with the stresses of daily life, overcome negative thoughts, and shift your perspective.
- Take care of your physical health. Your physical health is just as important as your mental health. Eating a balanced diet, making time for regular physical activity, and getting enough sleep can help you feel your best.
- Build a support network. No matter how lonely you might feel, you're far from alone. Reach out to close friends, family members, and loved ones when you're feeling down. When you have loved ones who will check on you, even when you're avoiding them, it can make all the difference in your recovery.
You deserve to thrive, not just survive. No matter where your trauma comes from, psychotherapy can help you start processing your trauma so you can move forward and improve your quality of life.
At Charlie Health, we offer comprehensive mental health treatment for adolescents, young adults, and their families. Whether you're living with PTSD, experiencing upsetting memories, or managing severe stress, we'll meet you where you are with professional care. Our compassionate mental health professionals will help you regain strength, learn sustainable coping strategies, and start healing.