PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

We all experience stress, and recovery is a natural process that takes time and often doesn’t require any assistance. However, certain traumatic and frightening events trigger a reaction which can last for months, years, decades and even a lifetime.

This is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD for short, it presents both physically and psychologically. Research shows that around 30% of individuals who experience traumatic events will manifest PTSD.

What is it?

PTSD describes a range of symptoms which occur following on from involvement in a traumatic event which is usually both beyond our control, and outside of our normal human experiences.

Examples range from witnessing a road traffic accident, natural disaster or terrorist attack, through to being the victim of abuse, a mugging, or witnessing harrowing scenes whilst serving in the armed forces.

Whether you are present during a traumatic event, a witness, or a direct victim, the intense distress and helplessness you felt in the midst of that situation can have a deep and long lasting psychological effect.

The onset of symptoms may be delayed by a number of months, or even years after the trauma first occurred.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the official medical terminology which is used to describe the condition by organisations such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), and for that reason I will continue to use the above terminology throughout.

PTSD, trauma, stress, anxiety, hypnotherapy

Symptoms

PTSD will usually occur after an individual has been involved in, or has witnessed a traumatic event such as a serious road traffic accident, a natural disaster, being held hostage, a violent death, military combat, a sexual assault, or another situation in which an individual feels extreme fear, and or helplessness.

After events such as these, PTSD will usually develop fairly quickly, though for some (below15%), the development of symptoms will be delayed by a period of weeks, months, or sometimes years.

Symptoms will vary from person to person, but often involve the anxious sufferer ‘reliving’ the event to some extent through a combination of flashbacks and nightmares. Re-experiencing the trauma can lead to anxiety, sleep problems, concentration difficulties, feelings of isolation and depression and a variety of additional symptoms.

The severity and persistence of these symptoms will vary greatly from person to person. For some sufferers, symptoms will be interspersed with periods of remission and for others they will be constant and acute enough to considerably impact quality of life.

Some of the key symptoms of PTSD are outlined below:

Re-experiencing parts of the trauma

It is quite common for individuals with PTSD to relive parts of the event through vivid flashbacks and nightmares. It may be that something in everyday life such as a sound or image has triggered this response, or this may occur for no identifiable reason. Flashbacks, intrusive images, thoughts and nightmares can be extremely distressing for sufferers as they can make them feel as though the event is happening all over again, even if only for a brief moment.

Hypervigilance

Often, sufferers find that after a traumatic event they remain constantly alert and vigilant to potentially threatening events, and are extremely anxious and easily startled.

This ‘hypervigilance’ can also come coupled with irritability, angry outbursts, aggressive behaviour, sleep problems and concentration difficulties.

Avoiding memories

Reliving a traumatic experience is extremely upsetting, so understandably some sufferers attempt to avoid anything and anyone which may trigger a response. Sufferers sometimes believe that feeling nothing at all is better than the negative and upsetting feelings they keep experiencing so will try to numb themselves emotionally.

Avoiding situations, people, conversation, activities and thoughts that directly relate to the trauma or are a reminder of the trauma is a common reaction.

Sufferers often try to keep themselves busy so that they don’t have time to think about the trauma and thus it becomes easier to repress those very difficult memories. Many sufferers will develop an extremely pessimistic outlook to life, losing interest in activates they once used to enjoy, disregarding the idea of making plans for the future, finding it difficult to keep or form close relationships and generally detaching themselves on both a physical and emotional level from others.

Additional symptoms

Other common symptoms and indicators of the condition include inexplicable physical symptoms such as severe headaches, dizzy spells, upset stomach, sweating, the shakes and chest pains, as well as mental health problems such as depression, phobias and anxiety. PTSD is a mental health condition in itself and the symptoms and side effects experienced can result in a breakdown of personal relationships and work relationships which can lead to further distress and upset.

Friends and family – what to look out for

As discussed in the above, a very common symptom of PTSD is avoiding memories and repressing emotions, so it is often friends, family members or colleagues who identify warning symptoms and signs of the condition before the actual sufferers themselves.

PTSD is a very sensitive issue and often sufferers may feel uncomfortable opening up about their experiences and may not be able to recognise that they require extra support. If you are concerned that one of your loved ones may be suffering from PTSD then below are some useful tips, formulated by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPSYCH) which could help you broach the topic:

What to do 

  • Look out for any behavioral changes such as frequent lateness to work, poor productivity and concentration, numerous days off sick etc.
  • Look out for changes to mood. Are they more irritable and angry than usual, do they seem depressed and withdrawn and are they isolating themselves?
  • If they open up to you about their story, don’t rush them and give them plenty of time to tell it.
  • If you ask questions make sure they are general and not too specific, as talking about certain moments in depth when they are not ready could trigger symptoms such as flashbacks.
  • Don’t interrupt them when they are telling you about their trauma and don’t reply with your own experiences.

What not to do

  • Really try to avoid generic phrases such as ‘I know how you feel’ as everyone’s situation is different and this may make them close up and stop talking.
  • Don’t tell them they are lucky to have come out the other side of their situation as they are unlikely to see this as a positive and again it could result in them closing up.
  • Don’t underplay their experience with phrases such as ‘It’s not all bad’.
  • Telling them to ‘snap out of it’ or to ‘get over it’ will not help them to recover.

Who suffers from PTSD?

Anyone who has witnessed a severe trauma could be susceptible to PTSD and it is estimated that up to one in 10 individuals may be affected by the condition at some stage during their lives.

However, some individuals who work within certain professions, and some individuals who exhibit certain risk factors may be more prone to develop the condition than others.

According to some studies the condition is present in approximately one in two female rape victims, one in three teenagers who have survived a car accident, two in three prisoners of war and one in five fire-fighters.

Those who have previously suffered from a mental health condition or who have a family history of mental health concerns are also considered to be at a ‘high risk’ of developing PTSD after being exposed to a harrowing event. It is estimated that up to four in five PTSD sufferers are affected by other mental health problems.

PTSD Diagnosis

PTSD diagnosis can be problematic for health care professionals because very often sufferers will not feel comfortable talking openly about how they are feeling, and in a large number of cases may not even seek treatment until weeks, months or even years after symptom onset.

Visiting a specialist can be a very difficult ordeal for sufferers, as discussing how they feel is required in order for a diagnosis to be reached. However, confronting these emotions and asking for professional help is the first step towards overcoming the condition so that sufferers are able to move forward in their lives.

If symptoms such begin after a traumatic event but then start to ease off and improve in the six week post trauma period, it may be that they were part of the body’s natural coping mechanism. However, if the symptoms persist for longer than six weeks and show no signs of improving then it is advisable to seek medical advice from a professional.

Because each sufferer will experience their own unique PTSD symptoms, a specialist will discuss your symptoms with you in depth. They may ask you whether you believe the trauma is a result of a recent event or as a result of something from a long time ago, what symptoms you are experiencing, your physical and psychological health background and your current overall health status.

Help for PTSD

PTSD is a condition which manifests itself both a physically and psychologically, and therefore treatment may be required for both aspects.

Effective treatments for the condition are still being researched as different types of trauma can have different impacts, and treatment for single incident trauma will usually differ to treatment for long-term trauma.

In their treatment guidelines NICE recommend that individuals undergo talking treatments such as psychotherapy, BEFORE any medication is prescribed.

Psychotherapy

This is a form of talk therapy that involves focussing on the traumatic experience in a bid to help you think differently about it and about your life. Though it is not possible to forget about the event entirely, psychotherapy helps individuals to reach a stage where they feel safer and more in control of their feelings so that they will no longer need to avoid these memories and are able to control when they think about them.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, is a branch of psychotherapy which is based on the premise that the way we think (cognitive) determines how we respond to those thoughts (behaviour). Over years these negative thinking and behaviour patterns become fixed, and cognitive behavioural therapy hopes to challenge those behaviours, bringing about positive feelings and behavioural changes.

CBT for PTSD is aimed at teaching sufferers ways to help them modify negative thought patterns so they are able to gain control of their fear. Though techniques will vary from practitioner to practitioner, often-mental imagery is used to help individuals through their trauma.

Please note: Some medical professionals argue that general counselling may actually be detrimental in some PTSD cases, as encouraging ‘feeling’ work during such a fragile stage could embed the trauma even further. The condition and its treatments are very complex and that is why if help is sought from a counsellor, psychotherapist or another talk therapy practitioner, it is advisable to ensure they’ve successfully treated PTSD before. 

Medication

Antidepressant medication may be prescribed by your GP.

However, NICE also state that drugs should only be prescribed when all other treatment avenues have been explored and none are deemed as suitable. For example:

  • If a sufferer has chosen not to undergo psychological treatment.
  • If they have had psychological treatment but experienced very little to no benefit.
  • If they are at further risk of trauma.
  • If they have severe depression that would make it unlikely for psychological interventions alone to be of benefit.

In any of the above incidences it may be that antidepressants are the most suitable option.

It is important to note that the effects of antidepressants will not begin instantaneously and it can take between two and four weeks for the effects to start being felt and up to three months before the benefits really become clear.

Of course, with every positive there is a negative, and antidepressants don’t come without their downsides. They come with a long list of possible side effects, can be addictive, and can also be difficult to come off. With this in mind they should be taken with absolute caution, with full knowledge of their side effects, and with regular supervision and check-ups from your GP.

  • Benzodiazepines – Medications such as diazepam are sometimes prescribed with the intention of being a short-term solution for issues such as irritability, sleep problems and anxiety. They can be addictive and begin to reduce in effectiveness after just a few weeks so only a short course should be prescribed.
  • Betablockers – These are being examined as a treatment option but further research is needed to prove their efficacy.

If you are prescribed medication to help treat your PTSD and you have found it to be effective then you can expect the course of treatment to continue for a possible period of around 12 months before your healthcare provider gradually begins the withdrawal process.

PTSD in children and young people

NICE have developed a set of guidelines which outline the recommended treatment procedure for children and young people affected by PTSD. According to the guidelines, older children exhibiting severe symptoms should undergo a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), preferably within a month after the traumatic incident.

For cases that occur three months or more after the event first occurred, NICE recommend the following:

  • Regular and on-going psychological treatment conducted by the same medical professional each week.
  • Families playing a role in the treatment programme if appropriate.
  • A course of CBT which is age and circumstance appropriate.
  • Parents are informed that no evidence has been found proving the efficacy of play therapy, family therapy or art therapy to treat PTSD.

Hypnotherapy for PTSD

As well as undergoing the treatment recommended by their health care provider, some enlightened PTSD sufferers also find that hypnotherapy treatment is very beneficial and many sufferers have experienced success with the treatment.

The aim of hypnotherapy is to unlock any repressed emotion (emotional baggage) so that the trauma can be reduced, reframed and explored from a distant perspective, meaning that the emotions don’t have to be felt, but more likely just witnessed as an observer.

There are various forms of hypnotherapy so I can only comment on my own process.

In order to determine which is the most suitable for you, I would usually begin by performing an assessment of your personal circumstances. This would be done at our initial consultation.

In most cases I will tend to use cognitive hypnotherapy or analytical hypnotherapy, both of which function on a deeper level than direct-suggestion hypnotherapy and are able to work with the unconscious mind so that negative beliefs which were built up during the trauma can be explored and alleviated.

I will treat you with absolute confidentiality, sensitivity and understanding and will discuss and explain any decisions regarding your treatment plan with you thoroughly before treatment begins or any changes are implemented.

You’re absolutely welcome to contact me if you have any questions or to book your consultation.