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National PTSD Month - What is PTSD?

what is ptsd

June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month. An estimated 6 out of every 100 people (6%) will have PTSD at some point in their lives. It is a mental health disorder that arises in response to a traumatic event (or series of traumatic events). Despite its widespread prevalence, many people who have PTSD are unaware of the help available to them. 

PTSD is treatable, with psychotherapy and medication having high rates of success. This PTSD Awareness Month, we’re encouraging people to look for PTSD counseling near them, check-in with their loved ones, and raise awareness for this mental health issue.

What is PTSD?

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and is a mental health disorder outlined by the DSM-5 (the diagnostic manual for therapists). Unlike other mental health disorders, everyone with PTSD will share at least one preexisting factor: They all experienced trauma

Trauma is a highly stressful, distressing event that is difficult to cope with. Common traumas are assault, military combat, accidents, natural disasters, and poverty. The nature of this event is so intense that the brain is unable or unwilling to fully process it. The result is often PTSD. 

Not everyone who experiences a trauma will go on to develop PTSD, however. Most people will experience a trauma at some point in their life—about 50% of the US population and 70% of the world-wide population—but only about 1 in 3 of people who experience a trauma will develop PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

Everyone will experience PTSD differently. Symptoms of PTSD are often dependent on the type and extent of trauma experienced. 

Also, complex-PTSD, or cPTSD as it is also called, may present differently. Complex PTSD is a result of extended, chronic trauma, most often in childhood. For example, neglect, abuse, and poverty are common traumas that can result in cPTSD. 

Based on the DSM-5 definition, the following are the symptoms for PTSD:

  1. Exposure to a traumatic event. This event may involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
  2. Intrusion symptoms:
    • Recurrent, intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s)
    • Recurrent, distressing dreams related to the traumatic event(s)
    • Dissociative reactions (flashbacks) where the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event(s) are recurring
    • Intense or prolonged psychological distress when exposed to reminders of the traumatic event(s)
    • Marked physiological reactions when exposed to reminders of the traumatic event(s)
  3. Avoidance symptoms:
    • Avoiding or efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings associated with the traumatic event(s)
    • Avoiding or efforts to avoid external reminders, such as people, places, conversations, activities, or situations that can trigger distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings associated with the traumatic event(s)
  4. Negative alterations in thought patterns and mood:
    • Inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic event(s)
    • Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world
    • Persistent distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences of the traumatic event(s)
    • Persistent negative emotional states (e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt, shame)
    • Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities
    • Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others
    • Persistent inability to experience positive emotions (anhedonia)
  5. Hyperarousal symptoms:
    • Irritable behavior and angry outbursts
    • Reckless or self-destructive behavior
    • Hypervigilance (exaggerated startle response)
    • Problems with concentration
    • Sleep disturbances

Most people will experience at least some of these following a trauma. In order for a PTSD diagnosis to be given, these symptoms should be present for more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

PTSD risk factors

Two people who experience the same traumatic event will react differently. One may go on to develop PTSD and the other may have minimal impairment. Why? 

Researchers aren’t entirely sure what leads one person to develop PTSD and another not to. It is hard to determine cause and effect. For example, women are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop PTSD than men, but this is partly due to the fact that women are more likely to experience traumatic events like assault and sexual abuse (one of the greatest risk factors for PTSD) than men. 

So although these risk factors are not guaranteed to result in PTSD, they can help identify high-risk people groups, which is important in advocating for greater awareness and resources. 

Risk factors of PTSD include:

  • Women
  • Veterans 
  • Being exposed to previous trauma
  • Childhood trauma
  • Having little or no social support after the trauma
  • Getting hurt or seeing others hurt or killed
  • Dealing with extra stress after the trauma (loss of job, house, or relationship)
  • Having a personal or family history of mental illness or substance abuse
  • Low-income living

However, it’s important to also acknowledge PTSD protective factors. These are factors that researchers have identified can decrease the risk of developing PTSD after a trauma. PTSD protective factors are:

  • Leaning on one’s support group (friends, families, or trauma support groups)
  • Adaptive coping mechanisms (healthy ways of dealing with the trauma)
  • High levels of personal resilience
  • High levels of self-efficacy (believing you have the skills to accomplish necessary tasks)
  • Secure attachment to friends and family
  • Acceptance of one’s reactions to trauma and seeking to cope and grow through it

Research suggests that these protective factors are even correlated with Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). Unlike PTSD, Post-Traumatic Growth is actually a positive change after a traumatic event. People can “bounce back” from trauma and use the experience to better themselves and their well-being. 

Studies have shown an average of 50% of people who experience trauma will experience some sort of post-traumatic growth. 

However, this is not the norm. People who experience PTSD symptoms are not weak or wrong for their experiences. Our protective and risk factors, as well as the trauma we experienced, are largely out of our control. 

While we can’t control trauma, we can take charge of our healing. Recovery from PTSD is not only possible but also likely. Protective factors can be gained after trauma to help prevent further worsening of symptoms, and people can grow through PTSD. 

If you’ve experienced trauma and are now experiencing PTSD, you’re not out of options. There is hope for healing, growth, and freedom from the symptoms that may plague you.

How is PTSD treated?

Extensive research has been conducted on effective methods of PTSD treatment, with positive effects. It appears that both medication and psychotherapy (talk therapy) are effective at treating PTSD and encouraging growth and healing. For medication management, reach out to a PTSD psychiatrist near you. 

A therapist for PTSD may use the following evidence-based modalities. 

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is a type of therapy that focuses on helping individuals with PTSD to process and reframe their thoughts and beliefs about the traumatic event. It aims to identify and challenge negative or distorted thinking patterns related to the trauma. By addressing these cognitive distortions, CPT can help individuals develop new, healthier ways of thinking, ultimately reducing the distressing symptoms of PTSD. Through guided discussions and homework assignments, CPT encourages individuals to explore their emotions, beliefs, and reactions associated with the trauma, leading to a sense of empowerment and increased control over their thoughts and feelings.
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) is designed to help individuals confront and gradually gain control over their fear and anxiety related to the traumatic event. Through carefully planned exposure to thoughts, memories, and situations associated with the trauma, individuals can learn to decrease their avoidance and experience a sense of mastery over their fears. PE also includes breathing and relaxation techniques to help manage anxiety during the exposure sessions. By repeatedly exposing themselves to the memories and situations that cause distress, individuals can learn to process and integrate these experiences, resulting in decreased avoidance and anxiety symptoms.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy technique that helps individuals process and resolve distressing memories and emotions related to the trauma. In EMDR, individuals recall their traumatic experiences while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation, usually through eye movements, taps, or sounds. This process helps individuals access and reprocess traumatic memories, allowing for the integration of new insights and more adaptive ways of processing the trauma. EMDR has shown to be effective in reducing the impact of traumatic memories and alleviating the distress associated with them.
  • Narrative Therapy focuses on helping individuals construct and reframe their personal narratives around the traumatic event. This therapeutic approach emphasizes the power of storytelling and meaning-making. Through guided conversations, individuals are encouraged to explore their experiences, emotions, and beliefs related to the trauma. By creating a coherent and empowering narrative, individuals can gain a sense of control, meaning, and resilience in the face of their traumatic experiences. Narrative therapy enables individuals to externalize their problems, not defining themselves solely based on their trauma, and instead, embrace a broader spectrum of their identities and stories.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a widely used and evidence-based therapy modality for PTSD. It emphasizes the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. CBT aims to identify and challenge negative thought patterns and beliefs related to the trauma, promoting healthier and more adaptive ways of thinking. Additionally, CBT helps individuals develop coping skills and strategies to manage distressing symptoms and anxiety. By addressing both cognitive and behavioral aspects, CBT provides individuals with practical tools to reduce avoidance behaviors, restructure negative thoughts, and develop effective ways of coping with stress, ultimately leading to symptom reduction and improvement in overall well-being.

Remember, finding the right treatment for PTSD is a highly individualized process. It's important to work with a qualified mental health professional who can tailor your PTSD treatment to your individual needs and goals. 

Lifebulb offers many PTSD therapists near you. Browse our list here, or reach out to our team and we can match you with a licensed PTSD counselor near you.

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Can PTSD be cured?

While there is no magic “cute”, recovery from PTSD and healing from trauma is possible. PTSD has a high recovery rate, and studies show that 77% of people will recover completely. 20% will recover within 3 months. 27% within 6 months, and 50% within 2 years. These are complete recoveries, meaning they no longer meet the criteria for PTSD. 

Therapy and medication are also highly effective in reducing the symptoms of PTSD. PTSD does not have to stop your life entirely. Although symptoms may persist for a while, treatment can help you still lead a fulfilling, happy life.

How to Help Someone with Trauma this PTSD Awareness Month

This PTSD Awareness Month, check in with your friends. PTSD is still highly stigmatized, and not everyone is willing to talk openly about their trauma or how they are doing. It always helps to check in. 

If you know someone who is struggling with PTSD, ask how you can be there for them this month. Remember that a strong support system is a high protective factor and can be instrumental in recovery from PTSD and trauma. 

This month, help someone with PTSD by: 

  • Educate Yourself: Take the time to learn about PTSD, its symptoms, and how it can affect your loved one's life. Understanding their experiences can help you provide better support and empathy.
  • Check-In With Them: When was the last time you sat down with them and asked how they were doing, and really listened? Life gets so busy sometimes it’s hard to remember to slow down and check in with people. 
  • Listen Without Judgment: Create a safe and open space for your loved one to express their feelings and experiences. Simply being present and listening without judgment can be incredibly comforting.
  • Respect Triggers: Be mindful of potential triggers for your loved one and try to create a supportive environment that minimizes their exposure to triggering situations or stimuli.
  • Encourage Professional Help: Support your loved one in seeking professional help, such as therapy or counseling. Offer to help research therapists or treatment options and provide encouragement throughout this process.
  • Be Patient and Understanding: Recovery from PTSD takes time and can involve setbacks. Patience and understanding are crucial. Encourage your loved one to take their time and reassure them that healing is a process.
  • Assist with Daily Routines: Offer to help with daily tasks or responsibilities when needed. This can alleviate some of the pressure your loved one may be feeling and allow them to focus on their well-being.
  • Provide a Safe Space: Create a safe and comforting environment for your loved one. This might involve reducing outside stressors, fostering a sense of security, and being a source of comfort.
  • Practice Self-Care: Take care of yourself so that you can be a source of support for your loved one. This might involve seeking your own support, setting boundaries, and finding healthy coping mechanisms for yourself.
  • Encourage Positive Coping Strategies: Support your loved one in engaging in activities that promote relaxation and well-being, such as exercise, mindfulness, and hobbies they enjoy.
  • Do something fun with them: Life doesn’t stop with a PTSD diagnosis. While you should always be aware of triggers and their mental health, encourage them to get out and do the things they love. Even better, do it with them!
  • Stay Connected: Maintain open lines of communication and check in with your loved one regularly. Let them know that you are there for them and that they are not alone.

Remember, your support and understanding can be a lifeline for someone with PTSD. By being there for your loved one, you are already making a meaningful difference in their journey toward healing and resilience.

This PTSD awareness month, do one little thing to support those who are struggling and do one thing for yourself. Trauma is an awful experience that shouldn’t happen to anyone, but together, we can create a community in which healing and recovery are possible. 

For professional help with PTSD, reach out to Lifebulb. We can match you with a licensed PTSD therapist near you.

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Frequently Asked Questions

PTSD Awareness Month is observed in June. It is a designated time to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder, its impact on individuals, and the importance of support and understanding for those affected by it.

 Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. This may include but is not limited to natural disasters, accidents, violence, or military combat. People with PTSD may experience intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of reminders, emotional numbness, and heightened anxiety. It is a real and valid psychological response to trauma and can significantly impact an individual's daily life.

 PTSD can be effectively treated with various therapies. Some commonly used treatments include:

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): This therapy helps individuals process and reframe their thoughts and beliefs about the traumatic event, leading to a healthier perception and reduced distress.

  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE): Through gradual exposure to trauma-related memories, individuals learn coping mechanisms to decrease avoidance and gain control over their fears.

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): This therapy combines recall of traumatic memories with bilateral stimulation, enabling individuals to process and integrate the memories in a more adaptive way.

  • Narrative Therapy: By creating a coherent and empowering narrative, individuals can gain a sense of control, meaning, and resilience in the face of their traumatic experiences.

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This therapy explores the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, helping individuals challenge negative thoughts and develop effective coping skills for managing distressing symptoms.

It's important to note that therapy should be tailored to each individual's needs and preferences, and it may take time to find the most effective approach.

 While there is no definitive "cure" for PTSD, it is highly treatable, and many individuals experience significant improvement and even remission of symptoms with the right support and treatment. The goal of therapy is to provide individuals with tools and strategies to manage symptoms, reduce distress, and improve overall well-being. With the right therapy, support from loved ones, self-care practices, and time, individuals can lead fulfilling lives and find relief from the impact of PTSD. Remember, healing and recovery are possible, and there is hope for a brighter future.

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