Have you ever been triggered by seemingly mundane sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or even touch? Despite the time and distance, trauma has the ability to linger or, in some cases, rear its angry head unexpectedly.
If you feel like you can’t escape the trauma of your past, you may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Can you recognize the signs and causes?
Who’s More Likely to Develop PTSD?
About one in three people who experience severe trauma develop PTSD, and women are twice as likely to develop it. Many people, however, experience the opposite of PTSD instead: post-traumatic growth (PTG).
Living through something difficult and coming out on the other side can leave some people feeling inspired and motivated to live a fuller, more purposeful life. For others, it can leave them feeling unstable and unprotected.
Certain factors can affect a person’s likelihood of developing PTSD or PTG. Growing up with a strong network of friends and family is likely to help you bounce back from hard times and fuel your self-esteem. However, people who struggled with depression and anxiety in the past or who lack a solid support network may have a higher risk of PTSD following a traumatic event.
Causes of PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has a variety of causes. It can follow a single extremely frightening event or develop after a long string of stressful events. Some common causes of PTSD include:
- Witnessing or being in a car accident
- Witnessing or being a victim of a crime
- Experiencing physical or sexual assault
- Working in one of these high-risk professions—military, police, firefighting, first responders, healthcare workers, photojournalists, and war journalists
- Witnessing a natural disaster like a hurricane or tornado
- Experiencing the death of a loved one
- Living through war and other state conflict/violence
- Traumatic medical experiences like childbirth, losing a baby, surgical complications, intensive care, etc.
Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD is a kind of anxiety disorder that comes from specific trauma, such as:
- Re-experiencing the event through disturbing flashbacks, nightmares, or physical sensations
- Repeatedly asking yourself questions about the event, complicating your ability to accept it
- Overwhelming feelings of guilt or shame about the event
- Avoiding reminders of the event, including people and places
- Emotional numbing and detachment to feelings, both stressful and joyful ones
- Withdrawing from relationships
- Feeling constantly on edge, sometimes leading to angry outbursts, difficulty sleeping, or brain fog
- Destructive tendencies, like drug or alcohol abuse
- Unexplained physical ailments like headaches, digestive pain, chest pain, and vertigo
How Does PTSD Work?
There’s no one reason why people develop PTSD, but researchers have come up with a few. One is an explanation for flashbacks: Repeatedly reviewing the details of the event over and over again can make you feel better prepared for it should it happen again.
Living in a constant state of hyperarousal may also help you feel like you can react quickly in danger. While our fight-or-flight instincts do help us respond swiftly to threats, living in a constant state of fight-or-flight only exhausts us in the long run. Being unable to fully process the trauma keeps us stuck in it, not past it.
Different Kinds of Counseling for PTSD
There are many different kinds of therapies for people struggling with PTSD, all with some degree of success:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Therapy that focuses on making connections between a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Helps us recognize patterns in our own processing and establish healthy ones.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR): Therapy that relies on bilateral stimulation (following a light back-and-forth with your eyes or tapping both sides of your legs) while holding the traumatic memory in a safe space to compartmentalize it somewhere less harmful for the brain.