What is PTSD?
Have you ever wondered what Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is? Of course, you have! That’s why you are here. I realize as a therapist that this disorder is becoming more common. COVID-19 and many other traumatizing events are making our world more unpredictable. What are we supposed to do with all these negative things?
We need to understand what is happening to us. Understanding trauma and PTSD will help. Know what you are dealing with. Knowing will give you ways to prepare and heal leading to a more enjoyable life experience. PTSD is a mental health disorder arising out of a traumatic event. A person’s experiences of this event bring about a complex system of triggers and symptoms based on that event.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Let’s start with a good definition of what PTSD is. Below I give several definitions from different sources. I will provide a simpler definition based on my best understanding after the formal definitions. Then I will provide several examples. I will briefly discuss the difference between trauma and PTSD. Finally, I will discuss the different areas of life that PTSD can affect.
Understanding PTSD starts with knowing how it is defined. Many sources define PTSD. The two most prominent might be the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM 5, and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) – 10. Other sources are textbooks, the American Psychiatric Association, or any other therapeutic association. Some websites have their version of a definition for PTSD. I will list a few here.
PTSD “arises as a delayed or protracted response to a stressful event or situation (of either brief or long duration) of an exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature, which is likely to cause pervasive distress in almost anyone.”
“Typical features include episodes of repeated reliving of the trauma in intrusive memories (“flashbacks”), dreams or nightmares, occurring against the persisting background of a sense of “numbness” and emotional blunting, detachment from other people, unresponsiveness to surroundings, anhedonia, and avoidance of activities and situations reminiscent of the trauma.”
“There is usually a state of autonomic hyperarousal with hypervigilance, an enhanced startle reaction, and insomnia. Anxiety and depression are commonly associated with the above symptoms and signs, and suicidal ideation is not infrequent.”
“The onset follows the trauma with a latency period that may range from a few weeks to months. The course is fluctuating but recovery can be expected in the majority of cases. In a small proportion of cases, the condition may follow a chronic course over many years, with eventual transition to an enduring personality change.” (Quoted from estss.org)
“Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.”
“People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear, or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people.”
“People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.”
“A diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an upsetting traumatic event. However, the exposure could be indirect rather than first-hand. For example, PTSD could occur in learning about the violent death of a close family or friend. It can also occur as a result of repeated exposure to horrible details of trauma such as police officers exposed to details of child abuse cases.” (Quoted from Psychiatry.org)
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” (Quoted from mayoclinic.org)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.”
“It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People with PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when not in danger.” (Quoted from the NIMH)
My definition of PTSD
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is when a person has severe reactions brought on by moments in time when they are reminded of an event that was very devastating, unable to be processed at that moment, possibly terrifying, and usually sudden. This event would be considered a traumatic event.
The moments that remind them of the traumatic event are considered triggers. Common reactions are considered symptoms. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and other possible emotional reactions.
This is a very complex mental health disorder in which the highest level of mental health professionals have dedicated their time to creating a system of criteria. This system helps to better determine if a person indeed has a disorder. The end goal is to provide better overall treatment for common symptoms that patients with this mental health disorder present.
The criteria for PTSD
PTSD has criteria, or a list of check marks, that people need to meet to have this disorder. Sorry for all of you who claim you have it! The list of criteria is long. With my training in mental health, I, fortunately, have the privilege to help people find out if they indeed have PTSD or not.
It’s so refreshing to see people when they finally can put this to rest, either if they find they fit the criteria or not. Diagnosing is not so simple as reading the definitions above and agreeing that you have it. Seeing a licensed professional who can adequately assess which criteria you meet is very important.
Don’t forget, that many licensed mental health professionals have been trained to “rule out” other possible disorders first. This is critical to determine any diagnosis! In an attempt to not be too wordy, but also, not give you the hope of diagnosing yourself, I will not fully go over all the criteria. I just want to give you a taste so that you can decide if you want to see a professional.
Typical criteria for diagnosing PTSD
There are different criteria for adults and children under 6 years of age. Adults have to meet 6 categories of criteria, as well as, the disruption of some major area of your life AND ruling out all other possibilities. Are you already seeing the complexities? I hope so.
The 6 categories are:
A. Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. These events also must have been experienced in very specific ways, ranging from having been present for the event, to someone repeatedly exposed to events indirectly. (IE, A police officer exposed repeatedly to the details of child abuse. (paraphrased from the DSM-5)).
B. Having one or more “intrusion symptoms associated with the
traumatic event” occurring after the event. Basically, if you show one of the 6 symptoms listed, you meet this criteria. These are some of the symptoms you might have had such as reoccurring thoughts, nightmares, and other symptoms.
C. Avoidance of or efforts to avoid anything associated with the event regularly. This would have to be after the event occurred.
D. At least 2 negative changes in mood AND thoughts as a result of the event and that occur after the event. A list of 7 options of negative changes are possible, and they almost all require PERSISTENCE. That would mean they keep going and you can’t stop them.
E. You see a definite change in how you respond to things due to the event. Again, there are 6 ways a person’s response can change and you have to have seen 2 of these changes.
F. Finally, the time that this continues to bother you has to be at least a month. (Guess what! If it is less than a month that this has been going on…You can’t be diagnosed with PTSD yet. It doesn’t mean you don’t have it, but it does mean you may not have it. You are only in what they will possibly diagnose as Acute Trauma.)
What does this all mean?
Fortunately for you, if you have read this far, you now have a better understanding of PTSD. It is much more complex than people think. You can’t just say you have it. This is a good thing! We don’t want to have this disorder if it is that complex.
However, if you do have it, it’s better to know that you do so you can treat it. This means, that if you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, or are just not sure what is going on with you, go find help!
How do I find a professional who can determine if I have PTSD?
Finding a professional is not as hard as it used to be. The concept of mental health has become much more common in the past 10 to 20 years. There are different types of mental health professionals that can help. So you need to know what type you are looking for.
Once you know what type of mental health professional you are looking for, then you need to look through the different resources that can tell you where to find one in your area or state. Search in your web browser, call your church office, look in the yellow pages, or ask a friend if they know of any good mental health professionals.
Finally, call around and try to find a therapist that fits your comfort and feels right. The relationship matters. If you are looking to be diagnosed or assessed, all licensed therapists in your state should have that capability.
However, a licensed psychologist is going to be trained more thoroughly to test and assess you for a mental health disorder. That does not mean that you cannot get a good idea or an accurate diagnosis from another mental health professional.
Examples of PTSD
The example that stands out to most people that have witnessed PTSD is of a person who has witnessed war or has been exposed to military combat. When a soldier sees death, explosions, bullets zipping by them, and other possible deadly experiences, they are very likely to experience intense trauma, resulting in PTSD.
Car wrecks can also bring about PTSD. If someone died in the wreck or there was an experience that could have been deadly, a person may have reoccurring issues that arise from that event. Paramedics see things like this all the time, which could also lead to PTSD, although they were not involved in the wreck.
Any kind of death or near-death experience can cause PTSD. Crashes, falling, intense physical abuse or rage, riots, and other events all have the potential to cause PTSD. Remember, the event must be due to witnessing or being present for the actual death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Breaking bones and rape can also be events that bring about PTSD.
The Difference Between Trauma and PTSD
Trauma and PTSD are different. The difference has more to do with severity. If you have trauma, you might have PTSD. However, if you have PTSD, you have trauma. Trauma can occur without a progression into full-blown PTSD.
When someone has trauma, but not PTSD, they tend to have triggers and symptoms, but not to the extent that a person would have if they were diagnosed with PTSD. Trauma can occur through many more events than PTSD. Developing trauma can occur just by being yelled at, lied to, getting sick, or any intense event that isn’t necessarily related to a deadly, near-death, or sexually violent situation.
Someone who is cheated on may not have PTSD, but they certainly have trauma and also have symptoms that resemble PTSD. So, if you are thinking you have PTSD, stay calm and know that it probably is not likely. However, you may still have trauma, and it would be helpful to heal from it.
What Areas of Life Does PTSD Affect
PTSD can affect many areas of life. Your finances, marriage, intimacy, work, social, and spiritual lives can all be impacted by PTSD. What area of life it impacts is going to be based on the nature of the event and the intensity of the event.
If the event was very intense, you could see impacts through every one of those areas because fear, anxiety, and depression will most likely take over and keep you from performing well in any of those areas. However, you are more likely to have more intense effects depending on the nature of the event.
For example, sexual violence is going to cause more problems in your marriage, intimate life, and possibly spiritual life. Again, it is possible based on the intensity it could affect all areas of life. Just remember that your life is important. Your ability to function is also very important. If PTSD is a part of your life, it is very likely affecting your ability to function in an important area of life.
Common underlying feelings to watch for with spouses that have PTSD
Due to the nature of PTSD, most people never expected the event that caused their trauma to happen. It was sudden. They felt a loss of control. Unfortunately, they now have a concern that if what happened to them can happen beyond their control, then what else could happen? Trust and control become hyper-focused.
Struggling with trust and the feeling of loss of control, these individuals are most likely grasping for some sort of stability. They are afraid. Any sort of vulnerability creates the possibility of being hurt or rejected. The result of not feeling like you can control anything at this point can result in hopelessness. Thus, opening the door for all sorts of other possible problems.
Remember that a person who has PTSD has been caught off guard. Their fear of not being in control drives their need for safety and stability, yet they don’t know how to attain that anymore. They are feeling stress, hopelessness, and fear.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is much more common today than previously because we understand it more. In the past, suicide and high rates of negative impacts on life were seen because people experienced this disorder, but we did not realize what was causing it. Now, we have more information and no excuse to not find help for people.
With the information above and other helpful resources listed, you should be able to find help and determine if you are experiencing this problem. Please don’t way to find help. You deserve to have a great life! If you know someone who is struggling in this way, share this with them and let them know you care and want to help. Thank you for reading and I hope you use this information to make your life and others better!