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PTSD Awareness – When Trauma Takes a Toll 

by Katie Love


Imagine waking up each morning reliving the most traumatic event of your life. 

Your stomach clenches, your heart races, and your mind becomes a battlefield of past memories. 

Even though everything is “fine”, you can’t seem to find peace.

This is the reality of what millions of Americans struggle with on a daily basis. Long after the deployment is over, the abuse has ended, and the diagnosis is in remission, the trauma still seems to be at the helm of the body’s control center. The unrelenting, crippling symptoms can feel almost impossible to escape. This is life with PTSD.

What is PTSD and what is the cause?

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a condition that occurs after experiencing or witnessing a significantly traumatic or life-threatening event. PTSD was once known as “shell-shock” and was seen in soldiers returning home from World War I, or “combat fatigue” following World War II. The diagnosis was not made official in the DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual) until 1980, which likely led to significant delay in treatment and lack of care for thousands of people. The truth is, PTSD is not limited to war veterans and affects millions of Americans of every ethnicity, age, gender, and background. 

Not everyone who goes through traumatic experiences will develop PTSD and the severity of symptoms do not always correlate to the actual danger of the situation. Many people mistakenly believe that “trauma” is the event that occurred. The truth is, “trauma”, by definition, is the brain’s perceived response to an intense stimulus that feels too overwhelming, threatening, or beyond the individual’s ability to cope with or control. Trauma may be a single distressing experience like being involved in a near-fatal car accident or an ongoing threat like a long-term abusive relationship or severe chronic pain. Vicarious trauma can also lead to PTSD. This type of trauma is experienced by children who grew up watching a parent or sibling suffer abuse, witnessing the death of a loved one, or being a caregiver for someone with a terminal illness.

Some of the potential triggering events for PTSD include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Intimate partner violence and psychological abuse
  • Car accidents
  • Witnessing death and violence
  • Participating in war or living in a combat zone
  • Sexual assault
  • Working as a first responder
  • Suffering from a chronic illness or chronic pain

 

PTSD can affect people directly following the traumatic event or may develop months or even years later. Some people with PTSD experience chronic, daily symptoms whereas other people only experience acute, sporadic symptoms. Regardless of the frequency of symptoms, PTSD is a serious and potentially disabling condition.

The impact of PTSD goes beyond the brain.

Individuals with PTSD who do not realize what is going on or who have not been properly evaluated and diagnosed often feel like they have multiple mental and physical health issues. This can lead to a lot of confusion and improper treatment if medical professionals do not take the time to understand that PTSD is the cause. Unlike other mental health conditions that cause primarily psychological challenges, PTSD can cause severe physical symptoms. Although trauma is registered in the brain, the impact of trauma extends throughout the entire body. The symptoms of trauma can vary from person to person, adding to the difficulty in getting a proper diagnosis. Some of the signs of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks of the event or “re-living” the event as if it were happening again
  • Unwanted, intrusive memories
  • Nightmares and insomnia
  • Frequently being “triggered” by anything that brings up memories of the event
  • Aversion to visiting places that remind you of the trauma
  • Feeling emotionless and shut down or experiencing extreme, overwhelming emotions
  • Feeling detached from relationships
  • Headaches, fatigue, pain syndromes (fibromyalgia)
  • Losing interest in hobbies, your career, and goal setting
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Outbursts of anger and crying episodes
  • Abdominal pain and GI issues
  • Dependence on alcohol, drugs, or other substances
  • Heightened sensory sensitivity and startle response

What kind of treatment is available?

As formidable as a diagnosis of PTSD might seem, healing and recovery are possible. There are several evidence-based treatment modalities that have been shown to aid in recovery from PTSD and co-occurring conditions like anxiety and depression.

  • Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy involves gradually exposing the patient to visual reminders of the trauma or other triggers in a safe, supportive, controlled environment. Over time, the fear and distress begins to lessen and the patient gains the ability to tolerate situations that once felt overwhelming. Virtual reality can also be used in exposure therapy.
  • EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is a trauma-focused form of therapy where a patient is guided by the therapist to focus on a distressing memory while engaging in various eye movements and bilateral tapping motions. Unlike traditional talk therapy, EMDR is unique in that it reshapes and rewires the way that the brain processes and stores memories. 
  • Somatic experiencing. Somatic experiencing is a body-based therapy that involves utilizing the body’s senses and movements to achieve a feeling of connection and safety. Many people with PTSD feel disconnected from their body and experience a significant amount of pain and other physical symptoms. The body awareness, relaxation, and gentle movement techniques used can help facilitate healing of the mind and body.
  • Group therapy. While it is important for patients to have adequate time to have their individual needs addressed, group therapy can be a great addition to a comprehensive, holistic approach to healing. PTSD sufferers may be more likely to be socially isolated and disconnected due to the impact of trauma. Group therapy provides an opportunity to engage socially and connect with others in a safe and confidential setting. Sharing their story and hearing others’ experiences also helps patients feel less alone and gives a feeling of community and belonging.
  • SFBT – Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. SFBT is a form of therapy that focuses less on recalling past trauma and puts more of an emphasis on centering oneself in the present moment and setting goals for the future. SFBT puts the patient in the driver’s seat of their situation. Instead of looking at past events or aspects of life that are not changeable, patients are guided to identify what is within their capacity to change. For individuals with PTSD, this empowerment and sense of agency can be very healing and may be the first time they have felt “in control” in a long time.

Where can I learn more about healing from trauma?

Thanks to the research and contributions from scientists, psychologists, and therapists, there are countless evidence-based resources available for both patients and those who are interested in learning more about trauma and the healing journey. Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, and Dr. Stephen Porges have all done extensive research into the impact of trauma on the mind and body and how to use various mind and body methods to heal. Alongside therapy, their work can help you achieve a higher quality of life and a greater understanding of what you are going through. If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into what recovery looks like, the following books and websites can provide extra guidance:

Books:

 

  • The Body Keeps the Score – Bessel van der Kolk
  • Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma – Peter Levine
  • Transforming Trauma – James S. Gordon
  • Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve – Stanley Rosenberg
  • Anchored – Deb Dana
  • Our Polyvagal World: How Safety and Trauma Change Us – Stephen Porges

 

Websites:

 

 

 

Trauma may have affected you, but it does not define you. 

Maybe you have been struggling for years or even decades. Your fight may have been long and full of tumultuous twists and turns but the path to healing is always available. The goal of healing is not to get back to “how things were before”. Things may never be the same, but you can rebuild a beautiful, fulfilling life no matter what you have been through. Take a moment to realize how strong and resilient you are for getting this far. Recovery may not happen overnight, but it will be well worth the time and effort required. With the right support, full healing is possible.

At Free Clear Mind, our highly-skilled team of therapists are here to help you on your recovery journey. Our clinicians are trauma-informed and offer a wide range of modalities, including EMDR, SFBT, and somatic therapy. Reach out to us to schedule your free consultation and get started today. No matter what you have been through, healing is possible. It is never too late.

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Free Clear Mind Therapy provides in-person therapy in Fishers & Indianapolis and online therapy across Indiana. Specializing in anxiety therapy for teens, adults, and kids.

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