Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event. Traumatic events can be both varied and personal, but might include things like a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist incident, the sudden death of a loved one, war, abuse or even a violent assault.

PTSD differs from regular stress or trauma in that it’s persistent and ongoing. PTSD impacts our ability to function or handle work or school, our relationships and our overall quality of life. It’s important to understand PTSD, its effects and impact on the person suffering from it, and its impact those around them.

How does PTSD affect us?

PTSD can manifest in two ways: immediate or delayed. People with PTSD can show a significant change in behavior, mood, and thoughts immediately after a trauma or it can show up months or even years later. And the greater the magnitude of the trauma, the greater the risk for developing PTSD.

People who struggle with PTSD “re-live” the traumatic experience in several ways:

  • Recurring, upsetting memories of the event
  • Recurring, distressing dreams about the trauma
  • Flashbacks and feeling like the event is happening again
  • Intense and prolonged anxiety and distress in response to things that remind us of the trauma
  • Physical reactions such as being easily startled or jumpy when exposed to something that seems to re-enact the trauma

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Text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

When a person suffers from PTSD they may have challenges keeping up in school, strained relationships with friends and family, difficulty in social situations, and problems with their physical health. It’s also common for people struggling with PTSD to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance misuse, self-injury, or even thoughts of suicide. That’s why it’s important to speak up if we’re worried about ourselves or a friend.

Symptoms of PTSD can be persistent or they can be triggered when we see, hear or experience something that recalls memories of the trauma. But, as overwhelming as PTSD can feel, it’s important to remember that PTSD is treatable and there are proven ways to manage the ongoing impact of trauma. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms come in four forms: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Some of these reactions may be unconscious — we may not even realize we’re doing them — so it can be helpful to be curious about our patterns and preferences, especially if we’ve suffered trauma.

Intrusive memories

  • Recurring distressing memories of the event
  • Flashbacks or reliving the trauma as if it were happening again
  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to anything that reminds you of the event

Avoidance

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the event
  • Avoiding locations, activities or people that remind you of the trauma
  • Leaving a situation because we have unexplained feelings of anxiety or discomfort

Negative changes in thinking and mood

  • Being down on yourself or other people or the world
  • Feeling an ongoing sense of hopelessness
  • Not remembering things, including important aspects of the event
  • Trouble maintaining relationships or feeling detached from your friends and family
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Trouble feeling happy
  • Feeling numb

Changes in physical and emotional reactions

  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Always being on guard for danger
  • Drinking too much, getting into fights, drugs or other destructive behavior
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Bursts of anger or aggressive behavior
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame

Treatment for PTSD

The most important thing in dealing with PTSD is not to ignore the signs and symptoms and to seek professional help in processing the experience. When we experience or witness something traumatic, it’s natural to want to shut our brains down or distract ourselves to keep us from replaying those moments. But distraction rarely leads to healing. We have to deal with the impact and find a plan for coping (and treatment, if necessary). Here are some ways to do that:

Talk About It, But Know You Can Decide How

While talking about your trauma is important, you ultimately get to decide how and when you talk about it (and to whom). You should never feel like you have to share details when friends, family, or coworkers ask how you’re doing. Find a safe space — whether through your personal support network or talking to a professional. Mental health professionals are trained to help us work through any type of reaction to trauma or mental health hurdle. For many people, talking to a professional first before talking with friends or family is helpful in coping and managing the more personal conversation on your terms. This process is different for everyone, so don’t rush it and be patient in knowing that it might take some feeling out to find what works best for you.

Create a Coping Plan

From talking to a therapist, using online resources, and confiding in your support network, it’s important to develop the coping plan that works for you. Think about how you’ll take care of yourself when you’re feeling the impact of the trauma. Who will you reach out to if things get overwhelming or hopeless? Try to carve out time to take care of yourself and plan activities — exercise, hobbies, meditation, yoga — that will help you stay present and calm down when memories of the trauma feel overwhelming.

Be Aware of Triggers

It’s common for certain people, situations, or places to bring back memories of the event. Take note of these moments so you can identify trends and potentially adapt your behavior to avoid triggers. Write them down in a journal and talk through them with a mental health professional to find productive and safe ways to counteract, avoid or cope with them.

Be Gentle with Yourself

Struggling after a traumatic event isn’t a sign of weakness — it’s the mind and body’s response to a major source of stress and anxiety. There is no perfect timeline for feeling better. Be patient with yourself if things seem to be taking a while to feel okay. Just be sure to speak up and ask for help, as that’s a true sign of strength.

Remember, there are resources and people out there to help you or someone you love who is struggling. You aren’t alone. JED is here to help you.

You’re Not Alone

In this JED Voices Video, actress, comedian and singer-songwriter, Anna Akan, shares her story about losing her younger sister to suicide, dealing with the PTSD that followed, and how she developed positive methods of coping.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7.

Find more ways to get help & feel better in our RESOURCE CENTER.

If this is an emergency, please call 911 immediately.

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