Calming The Beast: PTSD And Hyperarousal

Updated August 3, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Looking To Ease The Symptoms Of PTSD And Feel Calmer?

Many people who have a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis might feel out of control, angry, and embarrassed by their condition. Some people might even resort to blaming themselves or sinking into feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness. Much of this is because of the symptoms of PTSD. One such symptom is the sensation of hyperarousal or being constantly aware and on alert to potential dangers, triggers, and sources of pain, fear, or harm. While being on alert can serve people well in the short-term, long-term feelings of hyperarousal can lead to extended periods of elevated stress hormones and the eventual breakdown of bodily systems.

PTSD Defined

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that occurs following a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events. While PTSD was once narrowly defined as a disorder unique to post-combat war veterans, it is growing in its scope and can include people from a wide variety of backgrounds. PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced trauma or an ongoing series of traumas. Not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop PTSD, however. There are certain people who have higher risk factors for PTSD.

Risk factors for the posttraumatic stress disorder include anyone who has an anxiety or depressive disorder, or anyone with a family history of anxiety or depression disorders, including PTSD. There may also be some environmental factors as people who do not have a stable support system may be more likely to develop PTSD.

To qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD, you must experience the symptoms of the disorder for a minimum of one month following the trauma. Although it was once necessary to experience symptoms within a certain time frame to qualify for a diagnosis, PTSD is now recognized as a disorder that can develop from 3 months to several years after a traumatic event.

PTSD is its own diagnosis, but compounding PTSD is another aspect of the condition that is only recently gathering the attention it deserves. Compounding PTSD is any form of PTSD in which the trauma experienced was not a single, isolated event, but was an ongoing cycle of trauma. The most common source of compounding PTSD is physical or emotional abuse at the hands of a loved one. There may be other ways to receive a compounding PTSD diagnosis, including repeated trauma through your position as a hospital worker or any other profession that is frequently witness to human tragedy.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD symptoms vary to some degree among different PTSD patients, depending upon the person's background, source of trauma, and system of support, but there are four core PTSD symptoms, with several sub symptomssuch as difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, and other PTSD symptoms. The four core symptoms of PTSD include memories, avoidant behavior, behavior changes, and mood swings. The memory of the traumatic incident/s often arrives without notice or without a desire to recall it and causes significant distress. Within these memories, there are often gaps or may be some confusion regarding what actually happened. Memories may come in flashbacks or may manifest in the form of nightmares or other sleep disturbances.

Looking To Ease The Symptoms Of PTSD And Feel Calmer?

Avoidant behavior is any type of behavior that seeks to avoid triggers by refusing to visit certain places, entertain certain thoughts, or see certain people. Avoidant behavior must have a significant impact on your life to qualify as a PTSD symptom. Behavior changes cover any significant shift in behavior. For some, this means isolating yourself when you used to be outgoing or friendly, while others see this in the form of increased anger or irritability. Mood swings are also typical of PTSD, wherein people with the disorder move from pain to joy to fear to anger and back again, without feeling as though they can control or manage those emotions.

PTSD is a serious mental health concern. It come with other mental health issues and self destructive behavior such as self harm. According to experience and research through peer reviewed studies, there is hope for people who have PTSD, even if the trauma comes in vivid memories and is severe, such as from childhood abuse, a natural disaster, combat, domestic abuse, or other circumstances. Coping mechanisms, wellness professionals, PTSD support groups or another strong support system, professional treatments like exposure therapy, and other treatments are available. The rest of this article will focus on one possible symptom: hyperarousal in PTSD.

PTSD and Hyperarousal

Embedded within the symptoms of PTSD is PTSD hyperarousal. Symptoms of hyperarousal are characterized by feelings of vigilance, fear, and hesitance. Symptoms of hyperarousal often manifests in jumpy behavior, constantly being on edge, or walking on eggshells. Loud noises might be overwhelming and painful, while surprises, even from people you trust, can send you into an all-out panic attack. PTSD essentially forces the people with PTSD into a state of chronic stress, which means constantly living in "fight-flight-freeze" mode. In this mode, even everyday occurrences can take on heightened sensations and can make daily living an arduous task.

Effects of Hyperarousal

Experiencing hyperarousal over the short term does not have any severe or lasting effects. In cases where adrenaline is necessary, for instance moving quickly to escape a runaway car or requiring strength surpassing your own to tend to your child, hyperarousal is immensely useful. It can be the difference between staying safe and being harmed. When your body is constantly hyper aroused, however, many of your physical and mental systems begin to break down. Experiencing PTSD can lead to chronic stress.

When experiencing hyperarousal over longer periods of time, your brain essentially begins to prioritize its functions. This means that mood regulation and other "nonessentials" become secondary to accommodate the constant need to potentially fight, flight, or freeze. In your body, this form of stress can manifest as sleeplessness or oversleeping, loss of appetite or excessive appetite, depression, and brain fog. Symptoms of hyperarousal exacerbates the other symptoms of PTSD and is arguably the most painful, exhausting symptom. Experiencing PTSD and experiencing hyperarousal can lead to being on edge all the time, which is overwhelming and can lead to a host of other mental and physical disorders.

Hyperarousal Treatment

The treatment to manage hyperarousal for people with PTSDis incorporated into standard PTSD treatment. Typically, the first course of action in treating PTSD is working through the trauma or the individual traumas leading up to your diagnosis. PTSD treatment will likely begin with talk therapy. Initially, your therapist will teach you some self-soothing techniques so that when you begin to talk about the trauma, you will be able to better manage your emotional responses. Then you will walk your therapist through the event/s responsible for your PTSD while taking note of any details that are prominent or conspicuously missing. Your therapist can then identify which portions of the trauma have become stuck in your brain.

In a potential next step of your treatment plan, your therapist can walk you through your memories in a safe space. Together, you can manage settings as you discuss a traumatic experience. This invaluable service is an extremely important aspect of treatment because it allows you to feel and explore the symptoms of PTSD without the fear of being embarrassed, harmed, or exposed. Working through your experiences with a trusted therapist can help you gradually develop stronger, more effective coping methods. These might include meditation, mantra, and positive self-talk when fear and doubt come up as well as simple mindfulness and deep breathingtechniques to bring you back into your body and out of the past. Learning how to pay close attention to your breath or grounding yourself by using mindfulness and deep breathing strategies can be very helpful when processing traumatic memories and experiencing symptoms

Ultimately, the goal of any therapeutic approach is going to be rewiring your brain's response to the traumatic event and securely process it to allow it to be thoroughly processed and healed. When a traumatic event is stored away before it is processed (as is the case in PTSD), it cannot fully heal until it has been reopened and evaluated to understand it better. This is even true of children. Some children who experience trauma cannot understand it and are not able to fully open up and process that experience until adulthood.

Two common ideas behind therapy for PTSD are exposure therapy through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy. In brief, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy is a treatment used by professional therapists to help heal trauma. For many people, it can be very helpful, but it must be done with professional help.

Hyperarousal in PTSD

Hyperarousal is a classic symptom of PTSD, and symptoms of hyperarousal can cause significant upset in daily life from trouble with sleep to perceiving real danger everywhere. Hyperarousal describes a state of chronic stress, marked by the sense that you must walk on eggshells, that no one can be trusted, or that something bad is lurking just around the corner due to past and sometimes relevant experience. There are different symptoms of hyperarousal, and this type of constant fear can wreak havoc on your emotional and physical state and can trigger a domino effect of both physical and emotional health conditions. Hyperarousal is dangerous in its own right for the profound effects it has on the human body.

Talking to a Therapist

PTSD is treatable and does not have to be a lifelong sentence. Seeing an in-person or online therapist for treatment can be an immense help. They have authoritative experiences on how patients can improve, and they can offer a wide range of help with PTSD symptoms of sleep to hyperarousal. Most PTSD treatment lasts between 12 and 18 weeks at which point the person with PTSD and the therapist can reevaluate and determine if additional therapy is needed. During treatment, the person with PTSD will work with the therapist to develop new behaviors and thought patterns regarding the source of their trauma and walk through their trauma story step-by-step in a safe, controlled environment through behavioral therapy. This form of treatment may require some emotional fortitude but can dramatically improve one’s quality of life by reducing many of the symptoms of PTSD.

If you or anyone you know has experienced any of the symptoms of PTSD, including hyperarousal, but are unsure of seeing a therapist, you might want to consider online therapy. Online therapy can be done in the comfort of your home and has been proven to be as effective as face-to-face therapy. Research with a Veteran population has shown that individual and group therapy via videoconferencing with a therapist yielded similar results in the reduction of symptoms as those found in traditional therapy. Research has also shown that there was a strong therapeutic alliance between the person receiving the therapy and the therapist. Online therapy can also help with other conditions, such as insomnia and anxiety.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

If you’re ready to start your healing journey, one of BetterHelp’s online licensed therapists can help you. If you are worried about preventing fraud from unlicensed treatment, BetterHelp has many well known, reviewed, and licensed therapists. With the training and expertise in PTSD treatment, your therapist will guide you through your trauma story with gentleness and patience. You will learn how to manage your symptoms of PTSD, including hyperarousal, with the goal of lessening and eventually overcoming them. Although the road getting there can be difficult, treating and ultimately overcoming PTSD is possible, no matter your circumstance. You’ll be able to meet with your therapist wherever you feel most comfortable receiving treatment and at a time that’s convenient for you. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

Tina was able to diagnose my ptsd pretty soon after starting our sessions and helped me process a lot of unresolved childhood trauma 

I am really lucky to have Justin as my therapist. I write to him so much about my everyday life in solitude, and dating problems, family problems and traumas, and he goes through all the messages and really helps me even with the replies. And after every video session, I feel quite relieved and see progress and how I am slowly becoming a stronger and wiser human being, who doesn’t need to repress as much family pain anymore. Because there is someone who knows what he’s doing to help me deal with the problems we all have sometimes. And Justin helps me to motivate me to work towards my life goals. Personal, and career wise. After almost 5 years of swirling in nothingness, like a fly without a head, I finally feel like there is lots to achieve and with baby steps, will be achieved with less stress. Thank you, Justin! 

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