Some people associate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with war. This misconception may be because the first known studies of PTSD were conducted on WWII veterans. In the present day, research has been conducted on the impacts of PTSD on veterans and the general population. However, trauma can impact anyone, and there are many reasons PTSD might develop.
If you are currently dating someone with PTSD, have been diagnosed, or want to know more about the condition, it can be valuable to understand its symptoms. One of these symptoms is avoidance, which can occur in response to distressing memories or beliefs about the initial traumatic event you’ve experienced. Learning more about avoidance can help you understand how to combat it and recognize it when it occurs.
Avoidance: Post-Traumatic Stress And Triggers
Avoidance of remembering an unpleasant or traumatic event may seem understandable. Avoidance and numbness to stimuli can be significant symptoms of PTSD and may require professional support. Although one develops these behaviors to keep oneself safe, prolonged avoidance could prevent coping with trauma and eventual healing.
Avoiding thoughts of a traumatic event is another defense to keep the psyche from the trauma. For some, to think of an event means fully re-experiencing it, which might cause crying, shaking, angry outbursts, and violence. There may only be intense sadness or fear for others, with no extreme external reactions. The levels of discomfort can range from intense to complete avoidance of places, people, and dates that trigger emotional reactions.
Many people react to a traumatic event with shock symptoms, which may remain or recur over a temporary period. However, these reactions to discussions or memories of the event can dissipate over time if PTSD has not developed. Delayed onset PTSD is also possible.
How Are The Senses Connected To Trauma Avoidance?
PTSD is often associated with sensory experiences of trauma. The senses revive the memories and put the individual back in the moment of the original occurrence. Over-stimulation of sensory detail unrelated to the trauma can also trigger a reaction.
Some individuals who have avoided thoughts or feelings of an event for an extended period may avoid sensory experiences to avoid retraumatization.
For example, someone who was wearing a red shirt during an earthquake where they were traumatized may not want to wear that shirt anymore. This behavior is a form of generalization in which the individual associates related colors, sounds, or people with the trauma.
This behavior might be different from an individual who was a survivor or witness to a gun shooting. This individual might experience a trigger when they hear loud noises. This type of trigger is sudden and might cause an immediate reaction, such as running or jumping to escape.
Someone traumatized in an automobile accident may avoid riding in cars for some time. Survivors of sexual assault might struggle to return to certain areas or may associate people of a particular look with the person who abused them. Sensory reminders could include the smell of cologne, substance use, or a scent that reminds one of the location where their trauma occurred.
The mind is complex, and avoidance is a safety-seeking technique. People without PTSD can also use avoidance as a tactic. However, with PTSD, an individual avoids people, places, objects, and situations that are reminders of a traumatic event, even if avoiding them begins to impact other areas of life.
If you are experiencing sexual abuse or have experienced assault, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) has a hotline dedicated to supporting individuals experiencing sexual assault, harassment, or intimate partner violence. You can contact them anytime by calling 800-656-HOPE (4673) or using the online chat.
If you are managing substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
How To Find Support
For those experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms, reality-based therapy, systematic exposures to sensory triggers, and cognitive-behavioral therapy have proven effective for some individuals. Below are a few support options for those who are living with PTSD.
Medications may be beneficial for coping with co-occurring symptoms like anxiety, depression, or substance use. However, these treatments focus on addressing symptoms, and cannot cure PTSD itself. Consult a medical professional before starting, changing, or stopping a medication.
Studies have indicated that social support is essential for health and well-being. Talking to friends and family about your symptoms may help you move forward by allowing you space to talk about your experiences. If you have a safe social system, you can ask them to help you address your avoidance by accompanying you when you face situations or locations that remind you of a traumatic event.
For some experiencing PTSD and avoidance, a therapist can be a valuable resource. If you struggle to open up with family or friends or find that your existing social support is insufficient, you can try multiple therapeutic modalities. A therapist can offer you the structure of a session that you feel most comfortable with, whether it is solutions-based, based on exposure, or focused on healing trauma.
In some cases, an individual’s schedule or fear of leaving home may prevent them from seeking therapy. In these situations, an online therapy platform like BetterHelp can offer a matching system with licensed therapists available to work with clients via phone, video, or chat sessions. People may feel more safe working with a provider from home and can reach out throughout the week 24/7 to ask questions and receive feedback from the therapist.
Researchers have found online therapy effective in the treatment of PTSD. A recent study identified internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (iCBT) as having positive outcomes for individuals experiencing these symptoms. In addition, studies have found online therapy more cost-effective, which may lessen the stress of attending therapy for some individuals.
What are hidden signs of PTSD?
Not all possible signs of PTSD in an individual are observable to the people around them, or even to themselves. Some of these hidden PTSD symptoms include:
- Mood swings
- Avoiding certain places, situations, and even people
- Physical symptoms that seem to come out of nowhere like chills, headaches, or heart palpitations
- Changes in behavior like difficulty focusing, irrational angry outbursts, or difficulty sleeping
How does a person with PTSD behave?
Every person is different and can react to traumatic events differently. There are some common behaviors you can look for, however. Traumatic event avoidance symptoms include things like a person staying away from places, people, and situations that remind them of an event. They may become isolated.
Some may develop substance misuse as a result of self-medicating negative thoughts and feelings.
Does PTSD ever go away?
It can, but some experts say that PTSD can be more accurately said to “go into remission”. Getting treatment can lead to a decrease in symptoms, and symptoms may go away altogether. However, in some cases there can be a recurrence months, or even years later. Working with a licensed therapist can help build a toolbox of coping mechanisms that can help manage symptoms if they are triggered at a later date.
What is like PTSD but not?
Anxiety disorders can have symptoms similar to those of PTSD. Things like hyper-awareness, worry, fear, panic attacks, agitation, lack of focus, racing or intrusive thoughts, and physical symptoms can be a part of both of these conditions.
What is minor PTSD like?
Less severe cases of PTSD may look like avoiding certain places or people, avoiding thinking about an event, or feeling anxious when reminded of a certain situation. An individual may have nightmares related to the traumatic event.
What does untreated PTSD look like?
This can depend on the type and the level of PTSD. Some may find that untreated PTSD can look like avoidance of certain thoughts, people, places, or situations. Others may experience mood swings, or periods of anxiety or depression. Some more severe cases may include substance misuse, severe depression, difficulty sleeping, disrupted day-to-day living, social isolation, and even suicidal ideation. There is effective treatment available for PTSD, with either psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
Is PTSD a serious mental illness?
It can be. People who experience PTSD can react in different ways to the trauma that triggered it. How severe symptoms are may depend on factors such as the severity of the trauma, personality markers of the individual, and whether they experience other mental health conditions.
Some may find that they avoid certain places, people, or situations. Others may experience mood swings, or periods of anxiety or depression. More severe cases may include substance use disorders, as the individual tries to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Some may have suicidal thoughts, and others may even follow through on these thoughts.
However, PTSD is treatable. If you find that you have one or more PTSD symptoms, reaching out to a mental health professional can help bring you back in touch with positive emotions and thoughts, and can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms to decrease or eliminate symptoms.
Do people with PTSD realize they have it?
As with other mental health problems, some that develop PTSD may recognize symptoms for what they are, while others may not even notice anything is wrong. Mood symptoms and physical sensations may be attributed to other things, or be so much a part of the person’s life that they don’t see them as abnormal.
How do I know if I've been traumatized?
Risk factors for trauma include experiencing serious negative events like a serious injury, witnessing actual or threatened death, childhood abuse, sexual abuse or assault, or any other violent experience. You may think you’ve “gotten over it” or aren’t too bothered, but there are things that you can look for that may indicate you are dealing with mental health problems that stem from this event. Here are some signs:
- Changes in behavior
- Mood changes
- Flashbacks or nightmares related to the traumatic event
- Panic attacks
- Unexplained agitation or angry outbursts
- Feelings of fear or anxiety
- Difficulty sleeping
- Using drugs or alcohol to numb or manage negative feelings
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