Taking control of your trauma: A guide to PTSD treatment
An estimated six percent of the U.S. population will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. PTSD is a mental illness characterized by persistent thoughts related to a traumatic event or multiple adverse events a person has experienced. These thoughts and traumatic memories often lead to debilitating anxiety and fear as well as multiple other uncomfortable symptoms.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can be treated, though. The preferred type of treatment for PTSD depends on the patient as well as the type of trauma experienced. Still, effective treatments for PTSD established by a therapist can alleviate PTSD symptoms, both minor and severe.
What causes PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after a person experiences a traumatic experience. This traumatic experience can be short or prolonged, and can stem from combat, natural disasters, car accidents, sexual assault, and other situations.
According to studies, 60% of men and 50% of women experience a traumatic event at least once in their lives. Thus, PTSD can develop and affect anyone. It is not a sign of weakness or inability to "get over" traumatic events.
According to the National Center for PTSD of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
- Approximately 6 of every 100 people (6% of the U.S. population) will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.
- Nearly twelve million adults experience PTSD during a given year, and this represents only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma.
- Roughly 8 of every 100 women (8%) develop PTSD at some point in their lives compared with 4 of every 100 men (4%).
Who can PTSD affect?
There are many different factors that play into how post-traumatic stress disorder affects certain people.
The main factors include:
- The length of the trauma.
- If an individual is injured during/because of the trauma.
- Specific types of traumas have a higher percentage of PTSD victims (i.e., combat and sexual assault).
Although there are certain guidelines for diagnosing an individual with PTSD, no definitive diagnostic procedure determines who develops PTSD and why.
Personal factors can also play into who develops post-traumatic stress disorder.
These factors include:
- Previous life experience with trauma
In addition, the events immediately after a person experiences trauma can play a large role in how that person copes with the trauma. For example, excessive stress immediately following a traumatic event can greatly increase the chances of developing PTSD, whereas intensive social and familial support can prevent this from happening.
Symptoms of PTSD
Traumatic events, despite the circumstances, can have lasting effects on those who witness or experience them. Whether it's from a tour in Iraq or a horrific car accident, post-traumatic stress disorder can develop in anyone.
PTSD symptoms vary from patient to patient. However, general symptoms include:
- Upsetting memories (flashbacks)
- Feeling constantly on edge
- Trouble sleeping
- Persistent feelings of anxiety
- Difficulty managing daily activities and responsibilities
- Sleep problems
Another PTSD symptom, survivor’s guilt, is often experienced by survivors of fatal disasters or wars. People who experience this sort of trauma may feel guilty for having survived the tragedy when others did not. Symptoms of PTSD and their severity depend wholly on the event experienced and the individual.
PTSD symptoms can be persistent and fluctuate. Due to the complicated nature of PTSD and how it affects individuals differently, symptoms can either creep up after a long stretch of time after the event or come and go at a whim. This makes establishing a specific and comprehensive PTSD treatment plan with a qualified therapist paramount.
A person experiencing PTSD may have symptoms immediately after a trauma, or they can have symptoms months or even years after the trauma has taken place. If symptoms persist for longer than four weeks, cause you great distress or interfere with your basic home or work life, you may benefit from various PTSD treatment options.
The four types of PTSD symptoms
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are four main groups of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms used to determine a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis:
Reliving the event (re-experiencing)
- Bad memories
- Nightmares/night terrors
- Avoiding situations reminiscent of the event
- Avoiding situations to prevent triggers
- Avoiding talking or thinking of the event whatsoever
Developing additional negative thoughts/feelings
- Increased development of negative thoughts about yourself or others
- Feelings of guilt or shame about the trauma
- Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
- A heightened sense of paranoia and belief that the world is dangerous (e.g., no one can be trusted)
- Devoid of happiness
- Constant environmental canvassing
- Anticipation of danger
- Trouble concentrating
- Sleeping difficulties
- Sudden anger
- Extreme irritability
- Easily startled
- Abuse of illegal drugs, alcohol, or prescription medications
- Reckless behavior
Additional symptoms and related outcomes associated with PTSD are:
- Feelings of hopelessness and despair
- Chronic pain
- Employment issues
- Relationship issues/divorce
It’s important to note that not every person who has PTSD experiences all these symptoms.
Effective treatment options can be discussed with a qualified therapist.
There are two main types of post-traumatic stress disorder treatment options that qualified therapists offer people who are experiencing PTSD. Combinations of therapies are also widely used since each patient requires different treatment.
Psychotherapy is also known simply as "talk therapy". This type of therapy involves regular sessions (usually either weekly or biweekly) talking with a mental health professional about the memories and feelings associated with a traumatic event. The patient and therapist work through the traumatic experiences together.
Talk therapies can take place in either 1-on-1 settings (known as individual therapy) or in the context of a larger support group. These therapies can also be used in conjunction with various medications for PTSD.
Of all talk therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be one of the most effective therapy methods for treating PTSD symptoms. In a typical CBT session, the mental health professional and the person with PTSD spend time talking through any unhelpful beliefs the person may have about themselves, the trauma itself, or others.
Within CBT, there are a few sub-types that can be used for treating PTSD. These are:
Cognitive processing therapy
CPT is a PTSD treatment plan in which a qualified therapist teaches someone new skills to understand how the traumatic event changed or altered their thoughts or feelings regarding the trauma. Changing how you think about the trauma can change how you feel about it, helping you better manage your PTSD symptoms.
Clinical research support for CPT in the treatment of PTSD is strong. A meta-study found patients undergoing CPT showed significantly better treatment outcomes than those who went through placebo treatments.
Prolonged exposure therapy, also known simply as exposure therapy, is a method of treating PTSD in which a patient is asked to talk repeatedly about their trauma until the memories that once greatly debilitated a patient no longer bear any weight. This helps the patient gain control over their trauma. One study in JAMA Psychiatry found that just a few weeks of either CPT or exposure therapy were effective in treating PTSD.
Present-centered therapy (PCT) is a type of cognitive therapy. It’s considered a non-trauma-focused treatment for PTSD. The treatment focuses less on the past and more on the present (hence its name) than CBT. In addition, being “non-trauma-focused” means that it doesn’t use exposure, cognitive-restructuring, or other techniques found in traditional CBT treatments. This can help reduce patient drop-out rates seen in trauma-focused CBT treatments. However, one study found that PCT was not as effective as trauma-focused treatments in reducing PTSD symptoms.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, is a PTSD treatment plan option in which the patient focuses on sounds or movement while speaking about their trauma. This exercise aids the brain in working through the trauma.
The movement-based portions of the therapy are particularly effective. During these sessions, the patient trains his eyes on something moving – the therapist’s fingers, for example, or a light that blinks from left to right. As the object moves back and forth, so do the patient’s eyes.
This back-and-forth movement, coupled with the patient talking about disturbing events, has been found to be successful in reducing the intensity of the emotions connected to those memories. Researchers think the technique’s effectiveness is related to the back-and-forth movement eyes exhibit during REM sleep.
EMDR has strong research support for treating PTSD. One 2014 meta-analysis of 24 studies suggested it may work more effectively than more traditional, trauma-focused approaches to PTSD.
Stress inoculation therapy
Stress inoculation therapy (SIT) is a type of CBT that teaches those who have experienced trauma coping techniques to help them respond effectively to events that may bring on traumatic memories. This helps them guard against possible future post-traumatic stress disorder episodes.
Cognitive processing therapy
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) aims to help those who have experienced trauma break out of repetitive negative thought patterns. The idea is by changing thoughts, one can change emotions and thus alleviate PTSD symptoms. CPT is supported by both the American Psychological Association and the National Center for PTSD as a frontline treatment for the disorder.
Keeping PTSD symptoms at bay
There are many steps you can take yourself to ensure you maintain control over your trauma:
- Connect with friends and family: Isolation from loved ones may make the feeling of being alone worse. Keeping your friends and family close, though, could curb PTSD symptoms.
- Relaxation: Practice deep breathing, take moments to appreciate your environment, or meditate.
- Exercise: Exercising can contribute to mind fitness, which can greatly curb PTSD symptoms.
- Sleep: Ensuring you're getting the appropriate amount of sleep nightly will help you keep PTSD symptoms away.
- Know Yourself: Keep a diary, journal or notepad with your daily goals, thoughts, or feelings.
- Help Others: Reach out and see where you can help in your community. Participating in activities that get you out of your own head will help alleviate PTSD symptoms.
Recovering from PTSD
There is currently no cure for PTSD. However, like most mental illnesses, symptoms can be greatly reduced with effective treatments for PTSD administered and monitored by a qualified professional. In most cases, symptoms can be reduced to a degree where an individual can function healthily.
Finding a professional therapist who can offer you the intervention therapies that work best for you and your PTSD is important. Specifically, working with a professional who specializes in PTSD treatment can greatly increase your chances of taking control of your trauma.
People living with PTSD may experience specific barriers to treatment, though. For example, withdrawal from others is one symptom of this potentially debilitating mental illness. This can make meeting with a mental health professional in person particularly challenging. Online therapy is a viable option, however.
Studies evaluating the effectiveness of certain types of online treatments for PTSD are ongoing. However, researchers have already identified internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as an effective alternative to in-person counseling for individuals experiencing PTSD symptoms as well as related symptoms like depression.
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