Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder associated with trauma and stress, especially from severe physical harm or and exposure to painful events, such as the death of a loved one or witnessing horrific occurrences. Those susceptible people to this mental disorder include military troops, those involved in rescue efforts, and survivors of rape, extreme and prolonged violence, shootings, and bombings among other related occurrences. According to Psychology Today, family members of people suffering from PTSD could also develop the disorder through vicarious trauma. The prevalence of this condition is high affecting at least 8 million adults with women being more susceptible as compared to men. In cases where symptoms develop and persist for over a month, the condition is referred to as acute stress disorder. This paper discusses PTSD in the context of how it occurs, symptoms, and treatment. The paper also has a narrative section highlighting my prejudices concerning PTSD and personal experience I had with the condition after I witnessed a close friend battle it for years without successful intervention.
How it happens/Causes
The specific causes of PTSD are unknown, but some of the involved risk factors include social, physical, and psychological elements. However, the mechanism through which this condition occurs has been studied and established. According to Rosenberg, PTSD is the “product of an event so overwhelming that the brain cannot integrate it into the normal stream of memories.” In the face of a traumatic event, the brain responds by switching to flight, fight, or freeze mode through a biochemical process leading to increased production of certain chemicals to increase blood flow throughout the body in preparation for the appropriate action. Under normal circumstances, the normal body functioning is restored through the neutralization of the implicit memories that had been created during the flight, fight, freeze response via a resetting process.
However, under some circumstances, the body might fail to undergo the restoration procedure due to various reasons, such as “the fear of the discharge process itself, prolongation of the traumatic situation, complex cognitive and psycho-social considerations, and cortical interference” (Payne et al, p. 14). As such, the nervous system stays in a state of dysregulation, which is the underlying factor behind PTSD symptoms. The failure of the reset process implies that the nervous system remains in a survival mode, ultimately leading to trauma. Under such circumstances, the “brain concentrates on what is necessary to survive, and can fail to correctly place an event in context; later, the brain doesn’t know the event is in the past” (Rosenberg). The affected person cannot live in the present due to the continued sensing of danger even in cases where threats do not exist. This assertion underscores the need for effective and timely intervention to help the nervous system to overcome the fight, flight, freeze mode of survival, and restore to its normal functioning.
The majority of people with PTSD re-experience various aspects of the underlying traumatic events, especially when exposed to occurrences or environments similar to what caused the problem in the first place. As such, the affected individuals tend to avoid situations that trigger such traumatic memories, but this approach prolongs the condition because avoidance is not an intervention strategy for PTSD. Some of the symptoms associated with this disorder include the avoidance of places, conversations, people, feelings, and conversations related to the initial traumatic experience (Psychology Today). Other symptoms involve experiencing distressing memories or bad dreams about the event, flashbacks of the traumatic occurrence, and loss of awareness of the present environment. The body could also switch to the survival mode of fight, flight, or freeze when reminded of the event.
Some symptoms arise from the affected person’s efforts to block thoughts associated with the trauma, such as becoming numb or detached, difficulties remembering the past, loss of interest in life and social activities, and pessimism about future prospects. Sleeping difficulties, anger outbursts, hyper-vigilance, and lack of concentration are also related to this disorder. Other symptoms related to “depersonalization (feeling like an observer to one’s body and thoughts/feelings) or derealization (experiencing unreality of surroundings) may also exist for some individuals” (Psychology Today). Therefore, this condition should be addressed effectively to ensure that the affected people resume their normal living.
Both pharmacological and non-pharmacological intervention measures for PTSD are available. The first step involves interacting with the patient to understand the nature of the underlying problem to facilitate in making the appropriate decision concerning treatment options. The commonly used strategies are psychotherapy and medications, and at times, the two could be used together. The widely used psychotherapy technique is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). During the CBT process, the affected individuals are made aware of their traumatic experiences and guided through the same through practical ways. In some cases, such persons are exposed to the traumatic event, but in a safe way, through a technique known as exposure therapy (Psychology Today). Another CBT option is cognitive restructuring whereby PTSD patients are assisted to make sense of their experiences and memories. In some cases, people could be trained in functional ways to reduce PTSD symptoms when they arise.
The pharmacological intervention involves the use of drugs to alleviate the effects of this disorder. According to Psychology Today, in the US, two drugs – paroxetine (Paxil) and sertraline (Zoloft), which are both selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been approved to be used in the treatment of PTSD. These medications mainly work by reducing symptoms associated with this disorder, such as sadness, numbness, anger, and worry among other related feelings. However, these drugs have some side effects, and thus they should be used strictly according to the prescription guidelines for optimal functioning. Other antidepressants could also be used to treat mental problems associated with PTSD.
Growing up I assumed that PTSD, like many other mental conditions, is a personal issue and those that develop it are weak. This prejudiced and misconstrued perception hinged on a lack of relevant information concerning this disorder. However, everything changed almost a year ago after a close friend in the military returned from combat overseas. He has been an epitome of strength to me, thus when I witnessed him struggle with a mental disorder, I was confused. My unfounded assumptions that such conditions are associated with weakness were overturned, and it aroused unquenched curiosity and thirsty to know more about PTSD. To compound the problem, the normal CBT procedures were not working for my friend and even the medications he was being prescribed were ineffective too. I believe I also became traumatized to some extent in the process of trying to support him. I became speculative and suspicious of the effectiveness of conventional CBT therapies. In our collective suffering, I came across a technique called somatic experiencing (SE). I looked for a therapist specializing in this intervention method and requested her to take me through the process.
I learned invaluable information about SE, and when I introduced my friend to the therapy, his condition improved significantly. Even though he is still in the recovery process and the progress is impressive. SE starts by letting the affected individuals create a sense of safety, as opposed to being asked to relive their traumatic experiences (Smith). In this process, persons are in a position to reset their nervous system, restore its normal functioning by dispensing the trauma, and unlocking the fight, flight, freeze survival mode. This experience has changed my perception of PTSD and aroused the desire to pursue psychology so that I could help people experiencing mental problems. I now acknowledge that everyone could be a PTSD patient because it is a medical problem as opposed to being a personal issue.
PTSD is a common mental disorder affecting over 8 million Americans, and it is associated with traumatic events. Servicepersons are likely to suffer from this condition together with survivors of extreme violence and rescue workers. While the specific causes of the condition are not known, it is believed that chronic stress leading to PTSD occurs when the nervous system fails to restore its normal functioning after exposure to a threat. Individuals with PTSD are normally under the survival mode where the body is locked in flight, fight, or freeze status, even in the absence of danger. However, this condition could be treated using antidepressants, specifically SSRIs and psychotherapy.
- Payne, Peter, et al. “Somatic Experiencing: Using Interoception and Proprioception as Core Elements of Trauma Therapy.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 6, no. 93, 2015, 1-18.
- Psychology Today. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, 2019. Web.
- Rosenberg, Tina. “Battling America’s other PTSD Crisis.” Yahoo News, 2015. Web.
- Smith, Ilene. “How and Why Somatic Experiencing Works.” Psych Central, 2019. Web.