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Understanding PTSD

September 13, 2021

What comes to mind when you think about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

You might think about servicemen and women, and the difficulties some can have as a result of their experiences of war. You might not immediately relate the following situations to PTSD:

  • Someone getting flashbacks to a sexual assault when they’re hugged by their loving partner.
  • A hospital porter who’s worked throughout the pandemic experiencing sweats every time they put on their PPE.
  • Someone having nightmares after having been a patient in intensive care.
  • A grandparent seeing vivid images of the grandchild they lost in an accident.

All of those scenarios and symptoms – along with many more – can be examples of someone experiencing PTSD.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health disorder that’s related to trauma or a stressor. It can emerge as a result of being exposed to actual death or the threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. This could be because you’ve been involved in a traumatic experience yourself, seen it happen to someone else, or heard about it happening to a loved one. People who are repeatedly exposed to images or video of traumatic events as part of their job can also develop PTSD.

Incidences of PTSD are thought to have risen as a result of the pandemic: for example, a review of 25 studies from around the world has estimated that between around 20% to 50% of keyworkers were experiencing PTSD.

It’s common for people with PTSD to be troubled by negative or worrying thoughts, such as ‘Am I losing my grip on reality?’ or ‘No-one else is experiencing this, why am I?’. Understanding more about what you’re going through, and how the disorder works, can be a big help.

PTSD is connected with our memories.

We can probably all think of a very difficult or traumatic situation in our lives that’s painful to think about – but which we can choose to stop thinking about when we want to. Someone with PTSD can’t choose when to think about the event; it pops into their mind and their dreams sometimes almost out of the blue.

It all depends on whether we’ve processed the event properly. Perhaps we’ve been able to talk about it and make sense of it, which has allowed us to ‘file’ it away in our memories. If we’re not able to process the event for some reason – perhaps because it’s too distressing, or there’s something that doesn’t make sense to us, or we’ve simply tried to push it out of our mind – the memory doesn’t get filed away. This means that various triggers can make the memory spill out into our everyday life and cause havoc.

There’s more about this in the section called Flashbacks: the messy linen cupboard in one of our earlier blogs.

It’s useful to be aware of what your trigger or triggers can be.

Sometimes this will be obvious – but not always. For example, a nurse who lost patients during the pandemic may find that people talking about Covid is a clear trigger. However they may also have a flashback while they’re relaxing watching a film, and wonder why. This could be because a character on screen is wearing a jumper in the same colour as the curtains in the ward, or someone at home has just made coffee and it smells similar to the hospital canteen.

Very often, people with PTSD will try to avoid things that relate to the trauma – pushing away images that come into their mind, or avoiding a certain place or activity. Others may spend long periods thinking about it, trying to figure out what happened and why.

Symptoms can include:

  • Intrusive memories about what happened
  • Dreams or nightmares relating to what happened
  • Flashbacks – where you feel or act as if the trauma is happening again
  • Feeling distressed when you something reminds you of the event
  • Having physical reactions to reminders of the event.

Other signs to watch out for include not being able to concentrate, or feeling ‘hypervigilant’ to the threat – for example if you’ve had a car accident you might particularly look for and notice news about other accidents.

PTSD is a common mental health problem that can be treated.

If you’ve very recently experienced a traumatic event – for example, if you were in a car accident last week and you’re having flashbacks – this is to be expected and wouldn’t be treated as PTSD. You might still find it useful to talk about it to a professional or someone you trust.

However, if your symptoms have lasted longer than a month then a therapy such as CBT can help. Similarly, if any of the symptoms you’re experiencing are having a significant impact on your life – such as stopping you sleeping or making you very irritable – you might benefit from CBT to help you manage them. Read more about how ieso uses online CBT to treat PTSD.

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