June is PTSD Awareness Month. It is estimated that approximately 8% of the population will experience PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) at some point in their lives. PTSD results from a significantly traumatic event. Although several events can lead to PTSD, some of the most common include: military combat, sexual assault, physical assault, motor vehicle accident, work accident, or a natural disaster.
Following a traumatic event most people experience a number of upsetting experiences, which they often describe as feeling ‘keyed up’ or ‘on edge.’ These experiences can include nightmares, strong emotional reactions to reminders of the event, feeling very jumpy, having difficulty sleeping, or feeling emotionally numb. As a result, many people describe the experience of PTSD as feeling like they are caught in a storm. Most people with PTSD feel that other people don’t understand what they are feeling, even though they might say something like, “I know what you mean.”
As distressful as symptoms of PTSD can be, most of the symptoms were adaptive during the traumatic event itself and helped keep you alive. Unfortunately, for some people the brain’s survival mechanism does not ‘turn off’ after the traumatic event has ended. For these people the ongoing symptoms can cause emotional distress and lead to difficulties with daily living.
Over the past couple of decades neuroscience has learned a lot about what happens to the brain during and after a traumatic event. Neuroscience has found several changes in the brain of people with PTSD, which help explain the presence of posttraumatic symptoms. Essentially, this research has helped demonstrate that your symptoms and experiences are not “all in your head.” They have a real neurobiological basis.
Although PTSD is typically thought of as resulting from a single event, some people experience multiple ‘smaller’ traumatic events, which can lead to an experience sometimes referred to as Complex PTSD. Examples of such experiences can include: witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, repeated harassment, emotional abuse, or physical abuse.
An important thing to know about PTSD is that there can be relief from your distress. There are several well validated therapeutic approaches for addressing the symptoms and experiences of PTSD. While it can be difficult to talk about the traumatic event(s) in therapy, most people benefit from therapy and several people report feeling glad that they pursued therapy. The first step is often the most difficult, making the call to schedule an appointment.