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Though not as prevalent as depression or anxiety, PTSD is a serious mental health condition that affects millions of people across the world. In the past, the condition was known as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” due to the distress experienced by soldiers after World Wars I and II. In 2021, we know that PTSD is not unique to military veterans, but can affect people from all walks of life. This disorder affects 3.5% of Americans, though women and people of color are disproportionately affected, due to racial and gender-based trauma.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition brought on following exposure to a traumatic event. People living with PTSD are often plagued by distressing thoughts, dreams or flashbacks related to the traumatic incident. It is possible to experience a traumatic event without developing PTSD. It is also possible to reduce or eliminate the symptoms of PTSD with proper treatment and support.

While living with PTSD, it is common to have very intense and disturbing thoughts and feelings, even long after the traumatic event has passed. It is possible to continue reliving trauma for years, even if you do not get any obvious reminders of the incident. Nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts are all common experiences for persons with PTSD

what are the causes of ptsd?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is caused by exposure to a traumatic event. This can be repeated exposure or a single incident. Types of events that can lead to PTSD include physical or sexual assault or abuse, serious accidents, war, abject poverty and being a survivor of domestic violence. Surviving a natural disaster or widespread disastrous event is another common cause of PTSD. The COVID-19 pandemic is considered a traumatic event.  

Seeing or hearing other people being hurt or killed can also lead PTSD, even if you are not personally physically harmed by the incident. Women, LGBTQ people and people of color who experience discrimination based on their gender, sexuality or race can also experience PTSD.

signs and symptoms of ptsd

PTSD is diagnosed by evaluating your response to a traumatic event. Your clinician will ask you a series of questions to determine whether you fit certain criteria in order to diagnose you with PTSD and determine the best treatment plan for you.

The first criterion is the exposure to a traumatic event, which can come in the form of directly experiencing or witnessing an event or learning that the event has happened to a loved one. For those who witness distressing events in the context of work (such as police officers and first responders), repeated exposure can also lead to PTSD.

PTSD causes recurring, involuntary and intrusive memories of the traumatic event. Sometimes these memories seem to appear out of nowhere and other times, they are triggered by a visual, sound or even smell. People living with PTSD also experience distressing nightmares or flashbacks related to the event, which may feel incredibly real.

PTSD is also characterized by avoidance of certain places, people or situations that may trigger memories of the event. This can come in the form of intentionally taking a different route to avoid being near the vicinity of the incident, refusing to partake in certain activities or conversations and even being unable to listen to certain songs.

effective ways to treat ptsd

Fortunately, there are many research-backed, effective methods of managing and treating PTSD. By working with a therapist, the most ideal treatment plan will be determined for you, which may be one or more of these methods.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that seeks to change the way you think, feel and behave. It is incredibly effective at treating depression and anxiety, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma-focused CBT enables you to come to peace with the event by helping to change the way you think about it and the way you think about yourself in the context of the event. Many people who experience traumatic events begin believing that they were at fault for what happened, that they deserved it or constantly fear that it may happen again. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you to rationally address your intrusive thoughts and replace them with more helpful messages.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapeutic modality that has been scientifically proven to significantly reduce symptoms of PTSD. Your therapist will ask you to recall the traumatic incident in detail while making certain movements with your eyes or being exposed to external stimuli such as hand tapping and other sounds. EMDR helps to “rewire” your brain to help you move past your intrusive thoughts about the incident.

Progressive Counting

Progressive counting (PC) is a fairly new, but well-researched treatment for PTSD and other trauma-related conditions. It has been shown to teach people how to regain control during racing thoughts, enabling you to make healthier decisions in the moment. During a PC session, your therapist will ask you recall the traumatic incident as if it were a movie while the therapist counts out loud. You repeat the story, but for a longer count this time. As you gradually recall more and more of the incident, you are able to emotionally process and heal.

As a person living with trauma, it’s understandable if you feel stuck or if it’s difficult for you to move on from your past. The therapists at Flourish Psychology can offer support and guidance on your journey to healing. By combining empathy and expertise, your clinician will determine the best treatment plan, so you can find peace and begin to thrive again. Contact us today to begin working with a therapist.