According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 50% of us will experience trauma in our lifetime. We may develop different reactions to trauma including feeling nervous or shaky, or having repetitive, racing thoughts. But Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when the brain cannot effectively manage our anxious thoughts and feelings of fear after a traumatic event. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 7-8% of all people will experience PTSD in their lifetime. However, trauma can affect your life and functioning even if you don’t suffer from PTSD. Let’s examine what trauma is, how trauma may impact your life, and the treatments available for PTSD.
What is Trauma?
We’ve all been through stressful life events, but what is trauma exactly? A traumatic event used to be defined as: an experience in which the person perceived their life as being threatened, feared serious physical injury, or sexual violence. But this definition has shifted over the years. The the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) decided to expand upon the definition of trauma. It now includes all of the above, in addition to witnessing any of the aforementioned things happening to another person. It also includes suddenly discovering that any of these things happened to a loved one.
A few examples of trauma may more readily come to mind, including suffering physical abuse, rape, or having a near death experience during war. Less obvious examples of this could include repeated emotional abuse over time, the sudden death of a close family member, or living through a natural disaster. Any of these events could lead to development of PTSD characteristics that maybe noticed after a trauma, even if they don’t meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
Reactions to Trauma
There are many features that make up a diagnosis of PTSD. The clinical terms for these features are hypervigilance, avoidance, and re-experiencing. Additionally, we typically see mood and thought changes that happen in PTSD as well.
Hypervigilance is a heightened sense of fear and increased reactivity.
Avoidance applies to staying away from particular activities or places related to the trauma due to fear.
Re-experiencing can mean reliving the traumatic event in a variety of ways. This can sometimes occur in vivid nightmares, or flashbacks while you’re awake.
Even though having all of these symptoms could mean that you’re suffering from PTSD, having just one or a couple of these symptoms could still be reactions to trauma that feel unmanageable.
What Reactions to Trauma Look Like
There may be small things that you notice. Maybe you got into a car accident at a particular intersection. Subsequently, this was so distressing for you that you now avoid that particular intersection at all costs. Or maybe you have stressful and vivid dreams about the car accident, even if some details about it are different. Another more mild example is that some people experience mood changes related to the weather time of year when their event occurred. Or a more severe example, continuing to use the car accident example, the sound of screeching tires causes your heart to race and your breathing to quicken because you feel that you’re reliving your car accident.
Experiencing any of these types of reactions to trauma can cause people to feel isolated and very alone. It may even seem like these reactions to trauma are frustrating and inconvenient in some ways. But really they’re just your body telling you, “No! Don’t do that. It’s not safe. We don’t want to go through that again”. When your system pipes up and tries to tell you something, don’t ignore it. Especially, if any of these symptoms are getting in the way of you living your life, it may be time to get help.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT treats a variety of mental health concerns. But for PTSD, this is a form of psychotherapy has a specific function. It is used to help people who struggle to face their fears feel more comfortable confronting their trauma. Here, CBT incorporates the use of imagery, writing, and visiting a place in order to experience the trauma in a safe and supported way. Working through distorted thoughts and feelings connected to the trauma is another function of this therapy. The goal here is help you view them in a more fact and reality based way.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Simply put, this therapy incorporates a series of combining the patient’s eye movements together with movements of the therapists hands. Over several sessions, the therapist aids the patient in re-framing their traumatic event into an empowering event using their own intellect and emotional strength. EMDR must be conducted by a trained therapist, and was shown to be a highly effective treatment in this 2016 study, in addition to many others.
The option of medications may be something your provider recommends as a tool to help manage your reaction to trauma. Medications may be for use alone or in conjunction with therapy to aid in the healing process. The most studied type of medication for treating PTSD or PTSD-like symptoms, is antidepressants. The Food and Drug Association (FDA) has approved a specific type of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications alleviate symptoms of PTSD including depressed mood, feelings of fear, isolation, and excessive worry.
If you are having a reaction to trauma that is becoming unmanageable for you, we’re here to help. At Talkiatry, we have psychiatrists and nurse practitioners trained in a variety of modalities to meet your needs. Meet our team of providers here.
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