Almost everyone is exposed to some form of trauma in our lifetimes, and most of the time, we will recover naturally. Sometimes though, folks won't recover fully and may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Let's talk a little about what that means.
PTSD, broken down
Let's start with the first half of that acronym, the "P" and the "T", or "Post-Traumatic." This just means after the trauma. What is trauma? Well, societally, trauma can mean a wide range of things. However, within the context of PTSD this is more clearly defined. Traumas that can lead to PTSD include exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence.
You may directly experience the trauma, or witness it occurring to others. You may learn that something traumatic happens to a close friend or relative. You may indirectly be exposed to aversive details of the trauma as part of your job- think medics, firefighters, police officers, etc.
I understand that many people go through super stressful situations that may not be captured above. This doesn't minimize your pain nor invalidate your experience. It means that it can affect you significantly, but that it manifests differently than PTSD. This is important because understanding the difference will result in an accurate diagnosis and ensure you get the most effective and appropriate treatment for what you are dealing with.
Now that you understand the types of trauma that can lead to PTSD, let's talk about the last part of that acronym, the "S" and the "D," or "Stress Disorder." Stress, while a very subjective term, becomes a disorder when a person cannot recover from a stressor and it overwhelms their ability to adapt or cope. If these symptoms of PTSD last longer than a month, and if it starts causing impairment in your daily functioning, it is recognized more as a "disorder."
While the word "disorder" can make some people cringe or feel stigmatized. I encourage you to think of it as just a way to define a problem. "Disorder" just means it's messing with your ability to live your day-to-day life. Oh yeah, and not all disorders are life-long, but that's for a future blog post ;).
Categorizing Your Symptoms
There are four different categories of PTSD related symptoms, and people with PTSD will have some symptoms in each category. Symptoms can take on many different combinations and presentations. The categories are:
- You re-experience a past trauma somehow. This could be by having upsetting and unwanted memories, nightmares, flashbacks, getting emotionally upset if triggered by a trauma reminder, or having physical reactivity (breathing changes, heart rate changes, etc.)
- You avoid trauma-related thoughts, feelings, people, places, or activities because somehow it may remind you of trauma.
- Your thinking is more negative following trauma, and you experience a more negative emotional state. Maybe you blame yourself, think negatively of yourself and the world around you, are not as interested in activities you used to be, feel more disconnected from others, or have trouble feeling positive emotions.
- You notice more hyper-arousal symptoms, like more irritability, aggression, risky behavior, being more on-guard or hyper-vigilance, trouble concentrating, and problems sleeping.
Not everyone with PTSD has every single symptom. It will look different person to person, trauma to trauma. However it looks, PTSD will cause significant issues overall in a person's life- perhaps at work, school, or in relationships.
Recovery is Possible
What I hope you take from this blog post is that while PTSD is a big deal, it's not this amorphous "thing." While people tend to hate labels, clearly understanding what's going on can be relieving on its own and the first step in getting rid of PTSD. PTSD is a treatable condition, and know that those of us specializing in the field constantly strive to identify the best and most effective ways to treat it. More on that in future posts.