Dr Heather Dyson
What is PTSD?
For the past five years I have been working as a counselling psychologist for a veteran’s mental health charity. This means that I regularly work with ex-service men and women who are suffering from trauma, related to their experiences. During my time working in this field, I have encountered a lot of information on post traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD) and wanted to give an introduction and outline of this particular issue, its diagnosis and treatment, in the hopes of dispelling some of the myths surrounding it and providing further information. As always, if you are suffering from any of the symptoms described below, or are struggling with your own mental health, please do seek the help of a medical or psychological professional.
So what is PTSD? PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. It is, at its core, an anxiety disorder that has been brought about by a traumatic event or events. People with PTSD may have been actively involved in these events, or may have witnessed the events. It is also possible to have PTSD from ‘secondary trauma, where a person who didn’t witness the original event is severely affected in their own life. An example of this would be psychologists listening to repeated stories of trauma, as well as loved ones learning about a traumatic death of a family member.
While PTSD has, historically, been linked to those who have been involved in wars (for example, it was known as ‘shell shock’ in the First World War), it can affect a wide range of people who have experienced a breadth of traumatic experiences. Not everyone who experiences a trauma will go on to experience PTSD but it’s important to always consult with a mental health professional if you are struggling for longer than three months after a traumatic event.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
People going through PTSD may experience the following symptoms:
They often relive the traumatic event through vivid nightmares and flashbacks.
They may feel isolated and will find it difficult to reach out to others for help.
They may feel numb, or disconnected.
Feelings of anger, shame and guilt can often feel overwhelming and they can often find it hard to find enjoyment.
There can also be a heightened sense of alertness, with sufferers experiencing what is called ‘hypervigilance.’ This can also manifest in being jumpy or feeling on edge.
Disturbed sleep or insomnia.
What Should I do if I think I, or someone close to me, has PTSD?
The most important thing is to seek assistance from a medical or mental health professional. Usually, most people will visit their GP in the first instance, who can then refer them on to the appropriate specialist.
There are a number of different treatments available for PTSD. One of these is trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is a form of talking therapy that has been specifically adapted to deal with with PTSD. You can find out more about CBT in my recent blog piece here. For PTSD, the therapy may focus on ways to deal with symptoms such as hypervigilance, flashbacks and how to process the emotions surrounding the trauma, as well as other elements of the difficulties you are experiencing. Part of therapy will include actively engaging with the trauma, to elaborate and consolidate the memory, consequently reducing the distress it causes.
Another form of treatment is eye movement desensitisation reprocessing, or EMDR for short. This type of therapy looks to reprocess the traumatic memories, in a way that allows people to become desensitised to the often intense emotions that surround it. It involves recalling the traumatic event, while moving your eyes from side to side, in a way that mimics REM sleep. It allows people to gain some distance from the memory, without constantly reliving it, thus allowing them to manage the feelings around the event.
People suffering from PTSD may also benefit from Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), which uses elements of CBT and other psychological disciplines. The focus of CFT is on increasing compassion towards the self and to other people and reframing negative thought patterns.
Other treatments may include other talking therapies or medication. You can access private therapists, support groups and NHS services for PTSD treatment but, again, your GP will be able to advise you further.
There is always the option to ask for a second opinion or to be referred to different treatment types. So if you feel that one solution isn’t working for you, there are other options available and your doctor or mental health professional should be able to signpost you onwards. The symptoms of PTSD can often leave people feeling disconnected from those around them so it is important to remember that there are a range of treatment options and that there is help available.