What is PTSD? What are the Causes and Symptoms?
By: Lindsey Coates Horvatich
With the growing awareness on PTSD, you may be asking “I have heard of PTSD, but what is it anyway?” According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a complicated mental health diagnosis that can affect anyone who “has either experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, natural disaster, serious accident,…
With the growing awareness on PTSD, you may be asking “I have heard of PTSD, but what is it anyway?” According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a complicated mental health diagnosis that can affect anyone who
“has either experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist attack, war or combat, rape, or other violent personal assault.”
While the textbook definition is accurate, it does not quite cover the extent and severity of PTSD and just how pervasive it is in all areas of someone’s life.
What are the Causes of PTSD?
Over the last several years, I have worked with men, women, and teenagers who suffer from the effects of complex trauma. We all experience “lower case t” traumas in life, especially as children. Getting routine shots or being left with a babysitter for the first time can be traumatic, but these traumas are usually resolved with secure attachment and solid care from a parent or guardian. “Capital T” traumas are events that we either experience firsthand or witness that cause significant impact on the brain and how memory is stored in the body.
When we experience or witness a significant trauma, such as violence, abuse, death, homelessness, a vehicle accident, or rape, the structure of our brain actually begins to change. Many children who live in an abusive home or with a parent who is addicted to drugs and alcohol become so accustomed to trauma that their physical and neurobiology responses adapt to be on “high alert” or in high stress at all times.
During a moment of true danger, parts of the brain shut down and the “fight, flight, or freeze” response kicks in to make decisions easier and protect us from harm. The body produces the stress hormone, cortisol, which is meant to only be produced in short periods of significant distress. People who are repeatedly exposed to stressful environments, especially from a young age, become so accustomed to distress that their bodies produce too much cortisol and their brains are on high alert all of the time. This takes a tremendous toll on the mental, emotional, and physical health of a human being.
What are some symptoms of PTSD?
According to the Mayo Clinic, people who are repeatedly exposed to stress are at a much higher risk of developing the following conditions: Anxiety, Depression, Digestive problems, Headaches, Heart disease, Sleep problems, Weight gain, and Memory and concentration impairment. You may be walking through the mall and catch a whiff of the cologne that your abuser wore and have a brief memory of something that happened to you during that time. This is called a flashback – a brief, but painful memory of a trauma that has already occurred. It may happen so fast that you are not even sure what just happened, but now you feel angry, lonely, and scared.
What is the difference between Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD?
So what is the difference between acute stress disorder and PTSD? PTSD occurs when the brain and body are no longer capable of controlling the body’s response to stress. A person suffering from PTSD may experience memory flashbacks, insomnia, increased anxiety or depression, aversion to experiences that mirror a traumatic event, night terrors, estranged relationships, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, weight gain or weight loss, or a combination of any of the fore mentioned. Sometimes these symptoms are manageable, and sometimes these symptoms interfere with a person’s ability to function on a daily basis. PTSD symptoms occur when the fear is real, but the threat of danger is not real in the moment. However, in those moments of high stress, our brains and bodies have a hard time deciphering between real and perceived threats or danger.
Over the last several years, I have worked with many clients who have PTSD and have seen it appear in many different forms. Some people are incredibly high functioning and are not even aware of how their past trauma is affecting them until a significant event or disruption in life occurs. Some people are so aware of their triggers, or trauma responses, that they live in constant fear. The good news is that PTSD is treatable. I use methods such as prolonged exposure, trauma-informed care, Internal Family Systems, and Dialectic Behavioral Skills to address the problems related to PTSD. Many of my colleagues are trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART). All of these methods are empirically proven to help reduce the side effects and symptoms of PTSD.
If you are concerned that you or someone you love is battling PTSD, please reach out and let someone help. You do not have to fight alone. It can be scary to start to talk about past events, but talking to a trusted and well-trained therapist is the first step to recovery and healing.