How to Live with PTSD
Just a few days ago a gunman fired upon a primarily LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, slaughtering 50 people and leaving dozens more injured and traumatized. Four years ago the country was left aghast when a man fatally shot 20 young children going to Sandy Hook Elementary School. And 15 years ago, on September 11, the world watched in horror as the World Trade Center collapsed, killing 3,000 people and leaving twice as many injured. Unfortunately, mass traumatic incidents are no longer an once-in-a-lifetime experience for the United States, where in 2016 alone there have been over 133 mass shootings.
While we continue to mourn and keep those that have died in our hearts and minds, it is also necessary to support those that are still living. Death may be the ultimate price, but living through a trauma can leave scars that persist throughout your life. Whether it is an accident, assault, abuse, sexual assault, rape, or a mass shooting, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that affects about 8 percent of Americans. No matter what the trauma may be, here are some ways to live with PTSD.
How to Live with PTSD: Causes and Diagnosis
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs in those who have personally experienced or observed extreme trauma. It can be caused by a singular event like a serious accident, or continued exposure through violent acts such as physical, sexual, or verbal abuse. Often times veterans, those that are exposed to combat, or even emergency responders that assist people during traumatic incidents can get PTSD from being exposed to so much violence and distress.
In order to confirm that you have PTSD, however, there are diagnostic requirements you must meet:
- You experienced, witnessed, or have been repeatedly exposed to a traumatic event. While this seems fairly simplistic, it is actually fairly difficult to decide what classifies as ‘trauma’. For example, while divorce may be extremely emotionally exhausting, it most likely would not qualify as a trauma. Then and again, everyone is different. Some people are more affected by different things
- You have at least 1 re-experiencing symptom. You have distressing images, flashbacks, dreams, or severe emotional distress or physical symptoms about the traumatic event. Re-experiencing symptoms can be extremely distressing and frightening and can very well interfere with your every day life. They can occur day or night, and can be triggered by anything big or small that’s remotely related.
- You have at least 1 avoidance symptom. Avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma. By staying away from objects, people, thoughts, places, or feelings, you stop yourself from remembering the event, or perhaps even try to avoid the re-experiencing symptoms. Avoidance symptoms are very likely to cause a change in your every day routine- maybe even to a debilitating extent. For example, if someone gets into a bus accident on their way to work, they may avoid taking public transportation and have to find a new way to work.
- You have At least 1 mood or cognition symptom. A mood or cognition symptom could be in the form of having some amnesia concerning the event, a loss of interest and enjoyment, distorted feelings of guilt and responsibility. You could start viewing yourself, others, or the world around you in a negative light and as a result detach yourself from loved ones.
- You have at least 1 arousal or reactivity symptom. This could be anything like having trouble sleeping, feeling tense or paranoid, or being easily irritable, angry, or even having violent outbursts. Unlike the mood and cognition symptoms, these tend to be more consistent and not triggered by anything specific. However, they can also make routine, every day tasks like eating and sleeping, hard to do.
- Your symptoms are distressing enough that they interfere with your ability to live your life. PTSD isn’t a mild annoyance or something that bothers you every once in a while. It is a severe response to a severely traumatic event.
This is a basic outline of how doctors diagnose Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and some of the symptoms that can arise as a result. However, there are so many more than are listed above, such as physical and interpersonal symptoms. Make sure to talk to your doctor or therapist about anything else you may be experiencing for more than a month after your trauma.
How to Live with PTSD: Treatment
Many people who go through traumatic events feel like they are alone, that no one can understand what they are feeling and going through. However, it can still be helpful to talk about it. There are many types of therapeutic treatments you can seek, including medications that will make living with PTSD slightly easier.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
There are two parts to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that make it extremely effective and many people’s first choice when it comes to dealing with PTSD. Should you choose CBT you will go through Cognitive Therapy and Exposure Therapy.
Cognitive Therapy changes the way you think. Your aim is to figure out how your thoughts regarding your trauma are increasing your anxiety, stress, and propagating the PTSD. With your therapist, you will figure out which thoughts are causing the distressing feelings and how to replace them with more reasonable, less upsetting ones. Cognitive Therapy reminds you it’s not your fault.
Exposure therapy is the behavioural component. You will confront the things that trigger your symptoms and learn to face and control your fear. By gradually exposing yourself to the trauma in a safe environment, you learn to cope with the feelings in a secure way. With both these techniques combined you learn how to alter your thoughts and face reminders of your trauma.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Doctors are not really sure how EMDR works, but it does. Like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the point of EMDR is to alter the way to react to your memories. The way it works is simple: you think about the traumatic event but focus your eyes on a moving stimulus. For example, you could be focusing on your therapist moving their hand or a pencil. Your negative feelings towards the event should reduce as your brain processes. Again, experts aren’t sure how it works but it is definitely worth a try.
If therapy doesn’t feel like enough, you and your doctor could decide to try medicines. The most common medicine prescribed for PTSD are SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). You may be skeptical about treating PTSD with antidepressants, but SSRI’s address symptoms that are present in both depression and PTSD. Anger, sadness, apprehension, anxiety, are all symptoms that medications can help. For more information on antidepressants and how they work, check out our article: Are Antidepressants for You?
If you feel like your friends and family cannot understand what you’re going through, support group therapy may be for you. Talking with a group of people who have also been through trauma could make you feel more comfortable. Support groups are led by mental health professionals and are a safe environment to open up about your memories and struggles since. It can be a great place to voice your frustrations, resolve feelings and also build new relationships with people who understand. Also remember: sharing your story can not only help you, but help others as well.
Family can make or break the PTSD healing process. Studies have shown that patients have the best chance of recovery if their families are supportive, understanding, and listen. Conversely, it can be extremely damaging if they are insensitive or impatient. Both of these reactions are normal, however. Your family may feel guilty, scared, or even mad because they are just as lost as you are. By going to family therapy, a therapist can instruct you and your family on how to communicate properly. All of you can express your fears, anxieties, and other emotions in a safe environment mediated by a professional. Most importantly however, you should be honest. Tell them about what triggers you, what your symptoms are like, and especially how best they can help you. Individual therapy is important for your personal improvement, but family therapy can help save your relationships.
PTSD is a fairly common mental health disorder and there are plenty of resources available if you are affected. Reach out to a therapist, a support group, or to your family if you are dealing with PTSD. Even if you think no one can understand what you are going through, living with PTSD does not need to be done alone.
Deepti is a writer that specialises in neuroscience and psychology. She is passionate about modern medicine and finding other therapeutic techniques, and how both of these effect the developing brain. Deepti is extremely interested in the future of mental health awareness and treatment, and is always open to advice.