Over the course of their lives, about 6% of Americans will experience Post-Traumatic Distress Disorder (PTSD), and as many as 29% of military veterans experience symptoms of PTSD during their lives. June is PTSD Awareness Month in an effort to break the stigma around this mental health condition and spotlight resources for help.
What is PTSD?
PTSD occurs when either you or a loved one is exposed to a life-threatening, traumatic situation. “You define whether it was life-threatening,” explains Richard Jones, Chief Clinical Officer at Youturn Health. “Your perception of the event is what’s important. If you perceive that you’re in danger, if you perceive that your loved one is threatened.” This traumatic situation could be a one-time event or it could be something that happens over and over again.
For example, if you served in combat in the military, perhaps you were exposed to an intense gunfire battle. Or perhaps you’re a child who is repeatedly physically or verbally bullied at school. Maybe you were the victim of a sexual or physical assault. These are all events that you could perceive as traumatic, and your brain will either process them (an unstuck memory) or not be able to process them (stuck memory).
Stuck Memories vs Unstuck Memories
As we experience traumatic events, we either process them or they become stuck. If two people experience the same traumatic event, one person may be able to process it and the other person may not. It’s important to note that just because you can process a traumatic event doesn’t mean you are unaffected by it. It’s traumatic for a reason, it’s only natural to be affected by it. Some people can process trauma and eventually move on. It’s when a memory becomes stuck that we’re unable to move past it and resume living our regular life.
“The question becomes, why do certain things get processed by certain people and other things don’t get processed? Why do certain people get stuck, other people don’t get stuck?” says Jones. Unfortunately, we’re not really sure. It may be different coping skills or different levels of resilience. But ultimately, it’s a reality: what bothers me may not bother you. It’s not a matter of better or worse, it just is. If you are impacted by trauma, if a memory is stuck, that’s valid regardless of if it’s an unstuck memory for someone else.
Memory is multi-sensory, meaning it’s not just images that may remind you of a traumatic event, it could be smells, sounds, tone of voice, the space that the traumatic event happened in. This means PTSD could be triggered from any of those experiences. Hearing fireworks could remind a veteran of the gunfire from combat, smelling gasoline could remind someone of a car crash, hearing a song on the radio could remind someone of the day something awful happened to them.
Symptoms of PTSD and When to Get Help
As mentioned earlier, it’s common to be affected by a traumatic event, regardless of if the memory is stuck or unstuck. Trauma is difficult to cope with, but generally speaking, people manage to process the trauma and start to regain their lives within a month. With PTSD, symptoms may show up a month or even years after the event and affect your ability to live your daily life normally. The symptoms are grouped into four categories:
- Intrusive memories: Flashbacks, nightmares, upsetting memories of the traumatic event
- Avoidance: Avoiding talking about the event and anything that reminds you of it
- Negative changes in thinking and mood: Hopelessness, numbness, negative thoughts about you or other people, feeling detached from loved ones
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions: Being easily frightened, quick to anger, or always on guard; self-destructive behavior; trouble concentrating
According to the Mayo Clinic, if you have PTSD symptoms that last longer than a month or if you’re unable to live your normal life, you should seek help from a mental health professional. If you have suicidal thoughts, call/text 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, tell a loved one, and get help immediately.
Treatments for PTSD
If you just stuff your feelings, if you don’t talk about your trauma, you’ll continue to be triggered, which is a difficult way to live. While trauma is difficult to process, there are treatment options to help move through PTSD:
EMDR therapy: EMDR is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Jones, who is a EMDR-certified therapist says, “It’s almost like hypnotherapy. It involves following the therapist’s fingers back and forth, moving your eyes back and forth and processing the event. And as you talk about the event while you move your eyes back and forth, it literally shakes the event loose. It helps move it along quicker.” Jones notes that you’ll want to find a certified EMDR practitioner if you want to go this route.
Talk therapy: Find a trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) practitioner that you are comfortable with. Processing trauma is not pretty, and you need to feel comfortable with them in order to really process it. “The most significant thing about trauma is it’s very very difficult to talk about” Jones says. “The reason that the memory is stuck is because your brain has buried it because it’s too painful to face.” If you’re processing trauma the right away, you will likely be crying a lot – a heavy, ugly cry – to get through the trauma.
Medicine: There are no medications that cure PTSD. You may be able to get prescriptions to treat the anxiety that comes with PTSD but you can’t treat trauma with medications, it has to be processed out.
For further information on trauma, please check out our Grief and Trauma resource page. If you are a Youturn Health member, please check out our courses on Mental Health: Anxiety (there is a PTSD lesson in this course) and the Trauma course for more about processing trauma.