What is PTSD?
Traumatic events are unique to each person, and can include witnessing or being involved in graphic death, physical or sexual assault, workplace or motor vehicle accidents, natural disasters, military combat, etc. Traumatic events are very frightening and can lead to a number of symptoms that, if persistent, can cause significant challenges in a person’s life. While it is common to experience symptoms of stress after a traumatic event, PTSD refers to a specific set of symptoms that continue for longer than a period of six months after an event.
Symptoms of PTSD can be grouped into 4 main categories as follows:
- Re-Experiencing: These symptoms include nightmares or night terrors, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts and memories related to the traumatic event. This can feel like the event is never truly over, and can cause difficulties with memory, sleep, concentration, and the ability to feel safe.
- Avoidance: In an effort to cope with distress, people with PTSD show patterns of distracting, minimizing, and trying to escape things that remind them of the trauma. This can lead to an avoidance of that person’s unique triggers, including a particular place, smell, sound, activity, etc. Often in an effort to avoid, people with PTSD can turn to using substances, engaging in reckless behaviours, and isolating from family and friends.
- Changes in thinking and mood: PTSD also involves significant changes to a person’s thoughts and beliefs about others around them, themselves, and the world as a whole. This could include having negative assumptions about a particular person or situation, viewing oneself negatively, feeling hopeless about the future, and believing that one is always at risk. People with PTSD often find it difficult to identify positive things around them, and can experience challenging emotions including self-blame, guilt, shame, and grief.
- Changes to arousal: In the face of danger or threat, the brain releases adrenaline and cortisol to help survive by electing to fight, flee or freeze during a traumatic event. After trauma, it can be difficult for the brain to understand that the threat has passed and we are safe again. People with PTSD describe feeling continuously on guard or on alert, and often experience heightened vigilance and even a strong startle response. This can lead to increased challenges with sleep or relaxation, irritability or aggression, and impulse control.