Trauma is widespread globally, but not everyone who experiences it gets the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, traumatic events can fundamentally change how we experience the world or those around us and perceive threats. Once you encounter trauma, you can never be the same.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after witnessing a life-threatening or traumatic event. It may take the form of flashbacks, nightmares, and hallucinations, as well as numbness, anger, or guilt.
While the media often focuses primarily on soldiers, PTSD affects more than just combat veterans. The most commonly reported traumatic events include sexual violence, interpersonal network traumatic events, interpersonal violence, and life-threatening experiences.
The lifetime prevalence of PTSD is about 6.1% to 9.2% in the U.S. and Canada. In addition, one-year prevalence rates vary from 3.5% to 4.7%.
Because women are often the victims of sexual or physical violence, they are more likely to develop PTSD than men. It also seems that minorities and socially disadvantaged groups are at a higher risk.
But don’t worry – there is hope!
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
To recognize PTSD, you first have to know what it looks like. The most common symptoms are:
- Experiencing intensely negative emotions (intense fear, panic attacks, or anger)
- Negative changes in beliefs and feelings related to the trauma
- Reliving the event repeatedly (a symptom of PTSD called re-experiencing) through flashbacks, nightmares, or even hallucinations
- Being easily triggered by external or internal stimuli related to the traumatic event
- Persistent avoidance of reminders of the event – staying away from situations, conversations, or places that remind the person of the trauma
- Feeling detached, numb, or losing interest in things they used to enjoy
- Engaging in risky behaviors, like drinking too much or risky driving
What Causes PTSD?
The causes of PTSD can be grouped into two categories: precursors to experiencing the trauma and immediate causes.
Numerous factors could lead to this mental health disorder, including:
- Experiencing a traumatic event: Having a traumatic experience is the main factor that triggers PTSD. More important than the severity of the traumatic event is the subjective way someone experiences it. Therefore, the traumatic event can be anything you can imagine; the condition is that it has to cause significant distress and impairment in its aftermath.
- Mental illness predisposition: You may be prone to developing PTSD if someone else in your family has suffered from a mental illness.
- The way your brain responds to stressful situations: For example, high levels of adrenaline can easily trigger a fight-or-flight response.
People who are at particularly high risk usually:
- Suffer from other mental illnesses
- Experience repeated trauma (like constant abuse)
- Don't have a support system (like friends or family)
- Are part of a minority group (higher exposure to traumatic events)
Why Do I Need Therapy for PTSD?
People who have PTSD keep reliving the experience in their minds, which causes them to feel frightened and stressed. They may even try to avoid situations similar to what they experienced, significantly limiting their activities and lives.
In addition to this, family members of people with PTSD may also be affected. Research studies have shown that children and adolescents who witness parents with PTSD can develop behavioral problems themselves.
Some people with PTSD may also start feeling emotionally numb, disconnected, or act recklessly.
The good news is that it doesn't have to be like that. PTSD therapy can help people:
- Manage their intense emotions and reactions to triggers
- Significantly reduce flashbacks, nightmares, and hallucinations
- Have a better quality of life
- Lower the risk of developing other mental health issues
- Foster better and more trustful relationships with those around
- Have higher self-esteem
Treatment for PTSD becomes necessary for the person's overall well-being and prevents the worsening of symptoms.
How Does Therapy for PTSD Work?
The goal of therapy for PTSD is not to eliminate all symptoms but rather reach a point where the symptoms no longer significantly disrupt a person's life daily, or the severity and frequency of the symptoms are significantly reduced.
Therapists use several different approaches to treat PTSD – some focus on discussing past traumatic events with the client, while others aim to empower clients to manage their present symptoms.
Types of psychological treatments used to treat PTSD include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD (CBT)
CBT provides techniques to better manage symptoms. These approaches usually involve cognitive restructuring, exposure therapy, and relaxation exercises.
In a nutshell, CBT has people rethink how they see the traumatic events, helps them confront their fears in a safe environment, and teaches them relaxation techniques to control their intense emotions when doing exposure.
Types of CBT include:
- Cognitive processing therapy: This therapy focuses on processing the traumatic event by changing the dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs associated with the traumatic event. For example, you might think that you should always be cautious, or you might feel guilty. By using cognitive restructuring, the client is encouraged to see things differently and have a healthier perspective. It essentially means changing your current way of thinking into a more helpful thinking style. This, in turn, will teach you how to react to specific traumatic triggers.
- Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Prolonged exposure has a similar mechanism. The main difference is that the techniques focus on exposure. The client makes a list of feared events (hierarchy of fears) and, with the help of relaxation exercises, takes each worry, one by one, and faces it. They do that until they get to the top of the hierarchy.
- Stress inoculation training: This therapy teaches clients coping skills to manage their PTSD symptoms. These skills include cognitive restructuring, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing techniques, and developing assertiveness.
- Imagery rehearsal therapy: This therapy can be a form of therapy for PTSD nightmares. The therapist asks the client to reimagine the ending of the nightmare to make it less terrifying. It also includes rehearsing the new ending and monitoring the nightmares.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy for PTSD (EMDR)
In EMDR, the client must recall the traumatic event while simultaneously moving their eyes back and forth or listening to a sound. After that, the client has to notice any change in their emotions, thoughts, and sensations. This procedure is repeated until the client becomes desensitized to the traumatic memory.
Online PTSD therapy
The problem is that traditional therapy methods can be impractical if you don’t have a therapist nearby or can’t get to one for whatever reason. This is where online therapy comes into play.
Online therapy involves using various forms of online communication to connect with a therapist in real-time. You can just talk to a therapist without the inconvenience of time and location.
It's quickly becoming a more common form of treatment for people who have a mental illness, and that can even include therapy for PTSD in veterans.
As far as efficiency goes, online psychotherapy is as effective as face-to-face therapy because it uses the techniques – the only difference is that everything happens virtually.
Is Therapy for PTSD Really Effective?
Psychotherapy is the most effective treatment for PTSD symptoms, and it’s more strongly associated with positive results than medication alone.
However, it can be effective when paired with certain medications, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs increase the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
CBT therapies and EMDR seem to be the most studied treatment choices for PTSD. According to a meta-analysis, they also seem to be the most effective and widely-used treatments overall.
Another meta-analysis showed that trauma-focused PTSD treatment for refugees is effective in reducing PTSD and depressive symptoms.
The type of PTSD therapy used depends on various factors, including:
- The client's preference
- Access to treatment
- The co-occurrence with other diagnoses
- The presence of other high-priority symptoms (for example, treating addiction or suicidal thoughts comes before treating PTSD symptoms)
Trauma always elicits a strong emotional response, but it becomes severe and distressing when the survivor can't recover from or control it, or when the symptoms disrupt their everyday activities.
PTSD is an inability to cope with stimuli that remind you of the trauma you went through. It may be a particular place, circumstance, thought, or feeling connected to the event that brings back painful reminders.
The severity of PTSD varies from person to person and gets worse if you don't seek proper counseling. But here's a scary fact: many people don't pursue treatment because of shame, guilt, or fear.
Hopefully, the stigma around PTSD is gradually fading, so that won't be the case anymore.
PTSD can steal so much of your life and make you miss out on experiencing all the joys of an uncertain world. What seems terrifying today can be a source of hope tomorrow.
PTSD therapy has a lot of empirical support, giving hope to the millions of people suffering from this unforgiving disorder. There are so many options to choose from, you just have to take a chance!
Online therapy can come to your rescue. DoMental has a wide range of specialized psychotherapists who can help, as well as the flexibility you need to work on yourself in your own time.