What is PTSD?
At times, in each of our lives, we all experience traumatic events; some more traumatic and impactful than others. This might be in the form of a car accident, being assaulted, abused or even witnessing someone else suffer. Depending on the duration and extent of the impact, the physiological and psychological repercussions of the trauma can remain and develop into a chronic psychological disorder known as PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If left untreated, PTSD can continue and intensify with varying symptoms for many months or years, causing lasting damage.
What causes PTSD?
When we experience a trauma, our bodies produce the hormone adrenaline which pumps the body into a “fight or flight” response. You can compare it to what happens when a zebra is being hunted by a lioness. The zebra sees the attacker, is hit with a shot of adrenaline and in a flash decides whether to stand their ground or run like the wind. There are two outcomes: either they outrun the attacker and their stress levels drop down to nothing, or they meet their end.
For we humans, after the initial distress of the event, the adrenaline level should then drop to normal. However, when an event traumatises enough, it can affect the brain’s ability to process the experience into a memory. The hippocampus is part of the emotional brain mainly responsible for forming long-term memories. When the brain gets hit with high adrenaline levels it can “blow a fuse” prohibiting the hippocampus from functioning properly.
As a result, the individual can suffer from three main types of symptoms:
- Firstly, vivid recollections of a trauma can continue in the form of nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of re-living the event. This cycle of returning to the event is the brains way of trying to make sense of the event and let it finally form into a memory.
- Secondly, it can evoke an avoidance of internal and external “triggers”, such as people, places or feelings connected to the event. Although avoiding a memory might feel safer in the beginning, this constant pushing away from the trauma can sustain PTSD and cause feelings of severe fear, numbness and disconnection from others.
- And, lastly, it can keep the individual continually “on guard” – always unsettled and looking out for danger. This is called “hyper vigilance”.
And, what does it feel like?
PTSD causes people to feel anxious, depressed, grief-stricken, guilty and a host of other negative emotions.
Severe, prolonged and repeated “complex” traumas – such as childhood abuse, bulling, combat experiences and those repeatedly subjected to the suffering of others, as with those working in emergency services – can cause Complex PTSD.
In addition to the symptoms of PTSD, Complex PTSD can also cause the following symptoms :
- Inability to remember aspects of the trauma
- Persistent negative beliefs about oneself or the world
- Persistent negative emotional states (shame, guilt, etc)
- Feeling detached from others
- Irritable behaviour/outburst of anger or anguish
- Reckless or destructive behaviour
- Inability to trust others
- Somatisation (health issues with no physical cause)
- Complicated feelings towards a perpetrator