Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Posted on 4 December 2017
If you’ve experienced a traumatic event – and are now having nightmares and hypervigilance – you could be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex problem that has many causes and risk factors. It can be caused by directly or indirectly experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a mugging, natural disaster, abuse and continued exposure to stressful events. Risk factors include substance abuse, chronic stress, genetics and access to support. It can affect people of all ages.
There are certain factors that increase your risk of PTSD, for example:
- Being a woman
- Postpartum depression
- Having a parent or parents with PTSD
- Having another mood disorder, such as depression
Your job can also place you at risk of developing PTSD. According to Cape Town psychiatrist Dr Belinda Derman, police officers are particularly at risk in South Africa. Teachers are also at risk in areas afflicted by gang violence.
‘They are afraid to reprimand children, they feel intimidated, overwhelmed and in danger as the kid’s parents may be known gangsters, who are suspected of being involved in murders that have happened in the community,’ Dr Derman explains.
Other at-risk professions include:
- Emergency response personnel
Dr Derman adds that people working in these professions tend to present symptoms of PTSD late as they suppress their distress and get on with the job.
How do I know if I have PTSD?
Not all traumatic events lead to PTSD and there is no timeline. Signs can crop up months or years after the event. If you experience signs for longer than one month, you should consult your doctor.
According to an article on MediLine Plus, PTSD symptoms can be divided into four categories:
- Flashbacks: Nightmares and strong reactions to reminders, such as smells or sounds.
- Avoidance: Feeling numb and detached, avoiding people and places, and disinterest in life.
- Hyper-arousal: Hyper-vigilance, loss of concentration, tendency to startle easily, emotional outbursts, and problems sleeping.
- Negative thoughts, moods and feelings: Guilt, blame, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
What are my treatment options?
Your first port of call should be a psychologist with the appropriate training and experience in PTSD. Cognitive behavioural therapy and eye movement desensitisation are recommended. Dr Derman adds that during treatment you also needs to work through your traumatic memories that keep intruding into your consciousness in the form of flashbacks and nightmares.
‘These “hot” memories are closely connected to the brain’s fear network, especially the amygdala,’ she explains. Learning how to pay attention to your breath and the physical sensations in your body activate the relaxation response. This can then be consciously used while recalling traumatic events.’
Being able to recall the event and calm down your body’s response in real-time helps your brain file these traumatic memories into a long-term memory where they don’t constantly intrude as flashbacks.