What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric condition that arises after one experiences or witnesses a traumatizing event. These events can vary widely, but may include living through a natural disaster, childhood abuse or neglect, sexual assault, active duty military experiences, witnessing the death of a loved one, and serious illness or injury. Survivors of large scale violent events can also experience PTSD, including those who witnessed the September 11th attacks and survivors of mass shootings. PTSD can present itself in an array of symptoms and severity, and may pop up when least expected. To learn how to cope with PTSD, one must have an understanding of their triggers and how they connect to PTSD. Here’s a little more about what we know of this condition:
- 70% of adults experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
- 20% of people who experience a traumatic event will develop PTSD.
- PTSD affects around 3.5% of the U.S. population, approximately 8 million Americans, in a given year.
- An estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.
- Latino Americans, African Americans, and American Indians are disproportionately affected and have higher rates of PTSD than non-Latino White Americans.
What’s it like to have PTSD?
PTSD symptoms fall into four categories – re-experiencing/intrusive thoughts, avoidance, arousal/reactivity, and changes in cognition and mood.
- Re-experiencing or intrusive thoughts can look like mental flashbacks and reliving physical responses to the traumatizing event when in a non-threatening environment, involuntary memories, and nightmares. The intensity of re-experiencing can lead one to feel as if they are living in the memory or seeing it happen right in front of their eyes.
- Avoidance can look like avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that may trigger distressing memories and refusing to think or talk about the traumatic event.
- Reactivity and arousal can look like aggressive outbursts, being easily startled, feeling constantly tense or on edge, struggling to sleep or concentrate, being suspicious of surroundings, or behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive manner.
- Changes in cognition and mood can look like repressing or forgetting parts of the traumatic event, negative and distorted beliefs about oneself and others, misplaced guilt and self-blame, isolation, depression, anxiety, anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure or joy), and loss of interest in enjoyable activities.
How can you cope if you’re experiencing PTSD?
There are many ways for those struggling with PTSD to find joy and meaning in their lives following a traumatic event. In addition to seeking therapeutic support, here are some tips for coping with PTSD.
- Use your five senses to ground yourself into the present. During flashbacks, a person may experience what’s called a dissociative state, in which they disconnect from their present reality. Your five senses help you reconnect with your surroundings and lower the perception of danger that isn’t present. Try things like doing a puzzle or word search, using essential oils like lavender or peppermint, describe your surroundings out loud and listen to your voice, bite into a piece of candy, lemon, or pepper, or take a shower.
- Practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness has been reported to reduce avoidance and self-blame in individuals suffering from PTSD. One form of this is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), which focuses on breathwork and targets intrusive thoughts. Another form of mindfulness is loving-kindness meditation, which increases self-compassion and reduces depressive symptoms.
- Find ways to express yourself. One symptom of PTSD is repetitive memories of the event, whether it be the whole event or parts of it. Instead of allowing the memory to take over, find ways to express what you are feeling or what you experienced. This can be done through arts such as painting and drawing, as well as through narrative writing. When the memory feels too strong, try creative writing to explore what happened and how you feel.
- Practice behavioral activation. Behavioral activation focuses on changing behaviors to mitigate problems someone may face. Behavioral activation can be used to reduce avoidance behaviors in those suffering from PTSD. This is achieved by identifying enjoyable activities and self-care habits that would otherwise make an individual feel good. Then set a goal and a reward to tackle the activities one step at a time.
Remember, you are never alone in your suffering. Always reach out for support as you find your own path towards healing and give yourself grace as you grow and recover.
Written by Imani Crawford, MSW, LCSWA