What is PTSD?
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that is caused by experiencing stressful, frightening, distressing and traumatic events. This can include exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation e.g., assault, serious health problems, serious road traffic accidents.
Symptoms can appear months, or even years later. You do not need to have experienced direct trauma to yourself, as PTSD can occur by witnessing or hearing about trauma that has happened to someone else.
When can PTSD occur?
PTSD can occur after:
- A traumatic event has directly happened to you
- You witnessed a traumatic event that happened to someone else
- You learned about a traumatic event that happened to a family member or friend
- You experience repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of traumatic events g., police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Each individual’s experience of PTSD is unique (i.e., two people can experience the same trauma, but be affected in different ways).
Common symptoms include:
- Intrusive memories, flashbacks or nightmares: Often relive the traumatic event in these ways and they bother you
- Intrusive memories: Spontaneous, involuntary, intrusive distressing memories of traumatic events
- Flashbacks: Feeling and acting as if the traumatic events are recurring right now. They can be full or partial images of the event – brought on by sounds, smells or tastes connected to the trauma. Additionally, flashbacks can be induced by emotions that were experienced and felt during the trauma
- Nightmares: Recurrent distressing dreams, related to the event
- Insomnia: May have trouble sleeping or concentrating due to increased arousal, feeling jumpy, or easily irritated
- Persistent, distorted blame of self: Blame can also extend to others about the causes of the traumatic events – a constant feeling that you can’t trust anyone, nowhere is safe, no-one understands etc. It can also leave with an exaggerated and persistent negative belief or expectations about the self or others, such as views that the world is dangerous
- Anger, or irritability
- Reckless or self-destructive behaviour
- Intense or prolonged psychological distress and physiological reactions to exposure to cues and reminders of the traumatic events
- Feelings of isolation
- Emotional numbness
- Guilt and shame
- Avoidance of places, people, activities that are reminders of the trauma – may also include using alcohol or drugs to avoid memories
- Inability to remember important aspects of the traumatic events
- PTSD can cause physical effects to due to the ‘fight or flight’ response being triggered by emotional distress
- It causes the release of cortisol and adrenaline – as the body prepares to respond to a threat
- Animal studies show prior stressful events can result in increased reactivity in the HPA axis – our central stress response system, which releases cortisol in times of stress
- Research shows those with PTSD also continue to produce the “fight or flight” hormones when no longer in danger g., this results in symptoms such as extreme alertness and being easily startled
- Can also feel like an anxiety attack – heart racing, feeling dizzy etc
- Elzinga et al, 2003 – Measured cortisol levels in saliva before, during and after exposure to personal trauma scripts in abused women with and without PTSD. PTSD patients had 122% higher cortisol levels when exposed to the script and 69% higher cortisol levels during recovery when compared to controls.
PSTD can manifest in slightly different symptoms eg….
- Fear of being separated from parent
- Losing previously acquired skills eg., toilet training
- New phobias or anxieties
- Acting out the trauma through play, stories or drawings