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Understanding the Nature of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can develop after exposure to a frightening, overwhelming and traumatic event(s).

PTSD symptoms (re-experiencing the event, avoidance, emotional numbing, and hyper-arousal) are common after traumatic experiences, especially interpersonal events (such as being the victim of sexual or physical violence), car accidents and disabling injury. For many people these symptoms decrease and disappear over time, but for some people the disorder develops as the symptoms persist and begin to interfere with their ability to cope with aspects of their daily lives.

Stigmas around PTSD were broken down when singer and song-writer Lady Gaga opened up about her experience suffering PTSD as a result of a traumatic sexual assault as a 19 year old woman. She revealed her journey with mental illness during a visit to a homeless shelter for young LGBT people.

“I told the kids today that I suffer from a mental illness — I suffer from PTSD,” the singer-songwriter said during the one-on-one interview. She continued, “I’ve never told anyone that before, so here we are. But the kindness that’s been shown to me by doctors — as well as my family and my friends — it’s really saved my life.”

She elaborated more on life with PTSD in an open letter published on her Born This Way Foundation website.

“I am continuing to learn how to transcend this because I know I can. If you relate to what I am sharing, please know that you can too,” the singer also shared.

Many people experience traumatic events in life – car accidents, natural disasters, exposure to crime, the loss of a loved one, or the violence of war are just some of the challenges that people may face over the course of a lifetime.

These traumas affect people in different ways – strong and distressing feelings are a normal response in the days and weeks following a traumatic event, as the event is processed and contextualized, allowing us to accommodate the experience into our life story. As time passes these feelings become less acute, and many recover from the traumatic experience without needing professional support.

However, for some people, as shared by Lady Gaga, these feelings continue to be distressing for far longer, and their lives are impacted to the point that they are no longer able to cope at home or work. These are signs that they may be developing Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD and its symptoms frequently coexist with other conditions such as depression and alcohol/substance abuse, especially when PTSD is severe.

The basic message from both international and Australian sources is the same: without early intervention, diagnosis and effective treatment, the personal and economic costs of PTSD and associated co-occurring disorders, can be devastating for people suffering with PTSD, their families, and for our society.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD:

Re-experiencing or re-living the event:

  • Intrusive memories, unwanted thoughts, sensations or images related to the trauma
  • Disturbing nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Intense emotional and physical reactions triggered by sights, sounds, smells or other sensations that are reminders of the traumatic event

Hyper-arousal:

  • Being overly alert
  • Having sleep difficulties or disturbances
  • Being unable to relax
  • Often feeling ‘wound up’, irritable and/or angry
  • Poor concentration and/or problems with memory
  • Feeling ‘on the look-out’, or ‘on guard’ for signs of danger (hyper-vigilance)
  • Being easily startled by sudden noises or unexpected things
  • Feeling numb

Finding it hard to experience and/or express your feelings:

  • Feeling detached or a lack of positive or loving feelings towards other people
  • Feeling numb and/or flat or ‘down’
  • Losing interest in activities that you used to enjoy

Avoidance behaviours:

  • Avoiding people and places associated with the traumatic event
  • Avoiding activities, thoughts and feelings which trigger distressing reminders of the event
  • Detaching or withdrawing from friends and family
  • Avoiding or withdrawing from emotional intimacy
  • Feeling vulnerable and avoiding situations that create anxiety
  • Avoid talking about the traumatic event

Recent research indicated that 86% of men and 76% of women with PTSD struggle with other mental health issues as time goes on – such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse issues- as they begin to use drugs and alcohol as a way of coping.

Trauma is cumulative when a person doesn’t have the opportunity to work through and contextualize the experience – which means that a history of developmental and/or repeated trauma increases the incidence, complexity and severity of PTSD. As coping and defense mechanisms begin to not work as well, or the effects of trauma break through, people struggling with the signs and symptoms of PTSD can be at serious risk of harming themselves, and even suicide.

There are many factors that influence why some people develop PTSD after traumatic experiences. It is important to understand what some of these factors may be for you personally, as treatment will be more effective, and recovery easier to sustain, if all these factors are addressed during treatment, as possible.

Managing PTSD can be challenging, exhausting and risky when attempting it alone. For this reason professional support and treatment is strongly recommended.

Lady Gaga exemplified this by finishing her open letter stating, “I am doing various modalities of psychotherapy and am on medicine prescribed by my psychiatrist. However, I believe that the most inexpensive and perhaps the best medicine in the world are words. Kind words… positive words… words that help people who feel ashamed of an invisible illness to overcome their shame and feel free. This is how I and we can begin to heal. I am starting today, because secrets keep you sick. And I don’t want to keep this secret anymore.”

PTSD is most effectively treated by health professionals, (Psychiatrists, Psychologists, therapists and nurses), who specialize in treating trauma related conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

If you think you might have PTSD, please seek professional help. There is so much hope for recovery.

If you would like to speak to someone who understands the challenges of living with PTSD, and who can discuss the your particular situation and treatment needs, we suggest that you call our assessment team who will offer a free and confidential preliminary chat, or full assessment if that is your preference.

Take the first step into treatment today by phoning or emailing our assessment team on 1800 063 332 / info@southpacificprivate.com.au