What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

by | Feb 4, 2020 | Anxiety, Depression, Panic Attacks, PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), Stress

 

In recent years Post-traumatic stress disorder has become much more widely talked about, but you may assume that it is confined to people serving in armed conflicts, or emergency service personnel. However, what many people don’t realise is that it can be caused by any trauma that happens to us, and that any of us can suffer from PTSD at some point in our lives.  

 

PTSD Symptoms Don’t Just Affect War Veterans

 

Any event that has an extremely strong emotional reaction could potentially cause PTSD. So let’s talk a little about what it is, how it occurs and more importantly, how it can be treated!

PTSD is a life-altering condition that can occur when someone has experienced or witnessed an ordeal that is life-threatening or is perceived as such. Victims can have re-occurring dark thoughts and frightening memories, or have flashbacks. Someone with PTSD can often feel numb and disconnected. Indeed, it was once referred to as shell shock. Approximately 25% of people involved in a major traumatic event go on to develop chronic PTSD symptoms. And this number increases if the same pattern of life-threatening incidents are constantly being repeated. For example, sustained frontline fighting in battles, or people whose jobs bring them face to face on a daily basis with violent or horrific incidents, such as A & E staff, paramedics, firemen and police officers. 

 

What kinds of event can cause PTSD?

 

  • Violent attacks on a person, sexual assault / abuse
  • Aggressive verbal attacks
  • A sudden illness events like a heart attack or stroke
  • Traffic accidents
  • Witnessing sudden violent death, such as in a train crash or traffic incident
  • Bombings and war-zone incidents
  • Panic attacks where the person thinks he is dying
  • Bereavement or nursing a relative through a severe or terminal illness
  • Children (or adults) can develop PTSD symptoms from watching horror films on TV

In fact, any event that triggers a strong fear reaction won’t always but can lead to PTSD.

 

How is a traumatic memory different to a normal memory?

 

There are two kinds of bad memories. Some fade, and in time the memory of the fire or car accident, or whatever it was, no longer feels so real and intrusive. In time it goes away to the point where it’s just an ordinary memory of an unfortunate incident that you experienced at some point. 

However, traumatic memories do not fade like this and in time may even get worse. These traumatic memories are perceived by us to be life threatening and are stored by the brain as a ‘survival template’. Left untreated they may continue to cause someone to have highly emotional reactions at inappropriate moments and can cause the sufferer problems for the rest of their life.

 

How would you know if you have a traumatic memory?

 

A traumatic memory may cause any or all of the following symptoms: nightmares, intrusive re-occurring memories, sudden outbursts of anger, panic attacks, depression and intense flashbacks; even hallucinating going through the terrible event again and again as if it were happening now. Sufferers frequently feel numb and unable to express emotions and often have a deep-seated belief that they will not live to old age.

In addition to this the memory usually feels very fresh, even years after the event and when you think about the memory you are usually aware of an emotional reaction. 

 

Can PTSD be treated successfully? 

 

The answer to that is a resounding yes! However, regrettably some talking therapy treatments for PTSD can make the symptoms worsen. To understand how this happens, and to make sure you get the right treatment, it is necessary to explain a little about how the brain processes trauma and how it is stored. 

Trauma is encoded by a structure in the limbic system called the amygdala and stored away as a pattern. This part of the brain scans the environment all the time checking if anything matching this trauma is present. Whenever it detects something that matches this pattern, it will cause a reaction that triggers a fight or flight (or freeze) state. This is what is responsible for the flashbacks, the intrusive thoughts and the feelings of disconnection. At this point our thinking brain, the neo-cortex, has no input. This is the emotional part of our brain trying to keep us safe. 

Successful treatment

In therapy, if someone suffering from PTSD is asked to recall a trauma, they go fully back into the memory, into the trance state the trauma originally caused, and they then relive the trauma as if it were happening now, feeling all the same emotions. This can serve to underline the trauma and deepen it. Any process that cures PTSD has to keep the person’s awareness focused on the present so that the higher cortex can reframe the memory as a past event and put it in a realistic perspective. If the treatment involves getting in touch with the original trauma but then takes place with the client being deeply relaxed, then the person’s thinking brain can assess the trauma from today’s perspective and allow it to stop being stored in the amygdala and be stored instead as a normal memory. 

 

For more details on how our brains process trauma see our PTSD and Traumatic Experiences resource here

 

Case Study: Steve’s Experience with PTSD

 

Here is a recent case study of a client, Steve, who was treated for PTSD, which was the result of childhood abuse and bullying. When Steve came for treatment, he was initially quite negative and having been in a cycle of the same behaviour for so long, was not hopeful that he could change. In the first session he talked about some of his experiences and how it was affecting him on a day to day basis. His sleep was extremely poor and he regularly had anger outbursts, which was causing problems in his job and his relationship. I outlined to Steve how trauma templates had been laid down and that his brain was matching to these patterns and causing emotional and angry episodes.

Furthermore I went on to explain about the process that we use to deal with trauma, which is called the Rewind technique, and also how his thoughts during the day were affecting his sleep. Just having an understanding what was happening made him feel much more positive, as he was feeling out of control and at the mercy of his emotions. 

The Treatment

In between the first and second session he began doing a breathing technique in the morning and evening, and this helped to bring down his emotions to a more manageable level. In the second session, we did a rewind on a particularly traumatic period of his childhood, where he was continually physically and mentally abused. He was emotional when he spoke about it, but when we did the Rewind therapy, he was in a calm and relaxed state, and the emotional content of the memory was gradually and completely removed.

On the third session, we dealt with another traumatic experience that he had suffered in his teens. And just like the first Rewind we did, this linked to both his anger outbursts and his tendency to develop relationships with people that would go on to bully him. I did lots of rehearsal with him, whilst he was in a deeply relaxed state, where he was in control of his life and could visualise it moving forward positively.

Moving forwards

We had a fourth follow up session, just to see how he was after we had treated the two traumas and to see how he was coping with things without the trauma patterns in place. He reported that his anger outbursts had disappeared completely and his relationship was better than it had ever been. He was feeling more secure in his job, since the anger issues had gone and was looking forward to the future. He was astonished that things that happened so long ago, that he felt that he had put behind him, had had such a negative effect on his life. 

 

Help for Veterans and Their Families

 

Although anyone can suffer from PTSD, people who have served in the armed forces, as mentioned above, are particularly vulnerable to it.

PTSD Resolution is a charity providing counselling for former armed forces, reservists and families, for free. The therapists that they use are all skilled at using the Rewind technique to remove trauma. They are funded by donation only and to date have referred more than 2,000 people for therapy. http://www.ptsdresolution.org/ Counselling Forces’ Veterans, Reservists & Families (Registered Charity No. 1133188)

I hope you’ve found this blog helpful. It’s the first part of a series of 8 blogs on PTSD. If you have any questions you’re welcome to get in touch with us and if you know of anyone you think might benefit from this information then please share it. 

Best wishes 

Russ 

 

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