After a traumatic experience, it’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected. But if the upset doesn’t fade, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can develop following any event that makes you fear for your safety. Most people associate PTSD with rape or battle-scarred soldiers—and military combat is the most common cause in men. But any event, or series of events, that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and leaves you emotionally shattered, can trigger PTSD—especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.
PTSD can affect people who personally experience the traumatic event, those who witness the event, or those who pick up the pieces afterwards, such as emergency workers and law enforcement officers. It can even occur in the friends or family members of those who went through the actual trauma. Whatever the cause for your PTSD, by seeking treatment, reaching out for support, and developing new coping skills, you can learn to manage your symptoms, reduce painful memories, and move on with your life.
What causes PTSD?
When you experience a stressful event, your nervous system reacts with the fight-or-flight response. Your heart pounds faster, your blood pressure rises, and your muscles tighten, increasing your strength and reaction speed. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system calms your body, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, and winds back down to its normal state.
PTSD occurs when you experience too much stress in a situation. Even though the danger has passed, your nervous system is “stuck,” unable to return to its normal state of balance and you’re unable to move on from the event. Recovering from PTSD involves helping your nervous system become “unstuck” so you can heal and move on from the trauma.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD
PTSD develops differently from person to person because everyone’s nervous system and tolerance for stress is a little different. While you’re most likely to develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. Sometimes symptoms appear seemingly out of the blue. At other times, they are triggered by something that reminds you of the original traumatic event, such as a noise, an image, certain words, or a smell.
While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are four main types of symptoms.
1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or intense mental or physical reactions when reminded of the trauma.
2. Avoidance and numbing, such as avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, being unable to remember aspects of the ordeal, a loss of interest in activities and life in general, feeling emotionally numb and detached from others and a sense of a limited future.
3. Hyperarousal, including sleep problems, irritability, hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”), feeling jumpy or easily startled, angry outbursts, and aggressive, self-destructive, or reckless behavior.
4. Negative thought and mood changes like feeling alienated and alone, difficulty concentrating or remembering, depression and hopelessness, feeling mistrust and betrayal, and feeling guilt, shame, or self-blame.
PTSD self-help tip 1: Challenge your sense of helplessness
Recovery from PTSD is a gradual, ongoing process. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, nor do the memories of the trauma ever disappear completely. This can make life seem difficult at times. But there are many steps you can take to cope with the residual symptoms and reduce your anxiety and fear.
Overcoming your sense of helplessness is key to overcoming PTSD. Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times.
One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others: volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need, or donate to your favorite charity. Taking positive action directly challenges the sense of helplessness that is a common symptom of PTSD.
Tip 2: Get moving
When you’re suffering from PTSD, exercise can do more than release endorphins and improve your mood and outlook. By really focusing on your body and how it feels as you move, exercise can actually help your nervous system become “unstuck” and begin to move out of the immobilization stress response. Try:
Rhythmic exercise that engages both your arms and legs, such as walking, running, swimming, or dancing. Instead of focusing on your thoughts, focus on how your body feels. Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin.
Rock climbing, boxing, weight training, or martial arts. These activities can make it easier to focus on your body movements—after all, if you don’t, you could get hurt.
Spending time in nature. Pursuing outdoor activities like hiking, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing helps veterans cope with PTSD symptoms and transition back into civilian life. Anyone with PTSD can benefit from the relaxation, seclusion, and peace that come with being out in nature. Seek out local organizations that offer outdoor recreation or team-building opportunities.
Tip 3: Reach out to others for support
PTSD can make you feel disconnected from others. You may be tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. But it’s important to stay connected to life and the people who care about you. You don’t have to talk about the trauma if you don’t want to, but the caring support and companionship of others is vital to your recovery. Reach out to someone you can connect with for an uninterrupted period of time, someone who will listen when you want to talk without judging, criticizing, or continually getting distracted. That person may be your significant other, a family member, a friend, or a professional therapist. Or you could try:
Volunteering your time or reaching out to a friend in need. This is not only a great way to connect to others, but can also help you reclaim your sense of control.
Joining a PTSD support group. This can help you feel less isolated and alone and also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery.
Tip 4: Support PTSD treatment with a healthy lifestyle
The symptoms of PTSD can be hard on your body so it’s important to take care of yourself and develop some healthy lifestyle habits.
Take time to relax. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, massage, or yoga can activate the body’s relaxation response and ease symptoms of PTSD.
Avoid alcohol and drugs. When you’re struggling with difficult emotions and traumatic memories, you may be tempted to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. But substance use worsens many symptoms of PTSD, interferes with treatment, and can add to problems in your relationships.
Eat a healthy diet. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day. Omega-3s play a vital role in emotional health so incorporate foods such as fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts into your diet. Limit processed food, fried food, refined starches, and sugars, which can exacerbate mood swings and cause fluctuations in your energy.
Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can trigger anger, irritability, and moodiness. Aim for somewhere between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Develop a relaxing bedtime ritual (listen to calming music, watch a funny show, or read something light) and make your bedroom as quiet, dark, and soothing as possible.
Getting professional help for PTSD
If you suspect that you or a loved one has post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s important to seek help right away. The sooner PTSD is treated, the easier it is to overcome. If you’re reluctant to seek help, keep in mind that PTSD is not a sign of weakness, and the only way to overcome it is to confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past. This process is much easier with the guidance and support of an experienced therapist or doctor.
It’s only natural to want to avoid painful memories and feelings. But if you try to numb yourself and push your memories away, PTSD will only get worse. You can’t escape your emotions completely—they emerge under stress or whenever you let down your guard—and trying to do so is exhausting. The avoidance will ultimately harm your relationships, your ability to function, and the quality of your life.
PTSD treatment and therapy
Treatment for PTSD can relieve symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. A doctor or therapist will encourage you to recall and process the emotions you felt during the original event in order to reduce the powerful hold the memory has on your life.
During treatment, you’ll also explore your thoughts and feelings about the trauma, work through feelings of guilt and mistrust, learn how to cope with intrusive memories, and address the problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships.
The types of treatment available for PTSD include:
1. Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy involves gradually “exposing” yourself to feelings and situations that remind you of the trauma, and replacing distorted and irrational thoughts about the experience with a more balanced picture.
2. Family therapy can help your loved ones understand what you’re going through and help you work through relationship problems together as a family.
3. Medication is sometimes prescribed to people with PTSD to relieve secondary symptoms of depression or anxiety, although they do not treat the causes of PTSD.
4. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation, such as hand taps or sounds. These techniques work by “unfreezing” the brain’s information processing system, which is interrupted in times of extreme stress.
Books recommended for people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder:
1. War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder by Edward Tick
The New England Journal of Medicine reports that 16 percent (one in eight) of returning Iraq veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Such vets typically can’t hold jobs. They are incapable of intimacy, creative work, and self-realization. Some can’t leave the house because they are afraid they will kill or be killed. The key to healing, says psychotherapist Ed Tick, is in how we understand PTSD. In war’s overwhelming violence, the soul—the true self—flees and can become lost for life. He redefines PTSD as a true identity disorder, with radical implications for therapy. First, Tick establishes the traditional context of war in mythology and religion. Then he describes in depth PTSD in terms of identity issues. Finally, drawing on world spiritual traditions, he presents ways to nurture a positive identity based in compassion and forgiveness. War and the Soul will change the way we think about war, for veterans and for all those who love and want to help them. It shows how to make the wounded soul whole again. When this work is achieved, PTSD vanishes and the veteran can truly return home.
2. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel A. van der Kolk
A pioneering researcher and one of the world’s foremost experts on traumatic stress offers a bold new paradigm for healing.
Trauma is a fact of life. Veterans and their families deal with the painful aftermath of combat; one in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence. Such experiences inevitably leave traces on minds, emotions, and even on biology. Sadly, trauma sufferers frequently pass on their stress to their partners and children.
Renowned trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk has spent over three decades working with survivors. In The Body Keeps the Score, he transforms our understanding of traumatic stress, revealing how it literally rearranges the brain’s wiring—specifically areas dedicated to pleasure, engagement, control, and trust. He shows how these areas can be reactivated through innovative treatments including neurofeedback, mindfulness techniques, play, yoga, and other therapies. Based on Dr. van der Kolk’s own research and that of other leading specialists, The Body Keeps the Score offers proven alternatives to drugs and talk therapy—and a way to reclaim lives.
3. The Theatre of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today by Bryan Doerries
Classical tragedy is timelessly powerful – not only does it still move us, but it heals, too.
Bryan Doerries produces performances of Greek tragedies for soldiers returned from conflict, addicts, prison communities, victims of natural disasters, and other vulnerable people. His dramatisations have explored how the story of Sophocles’ Ajax can help today’s soldiers and their loved ones grapple with trauma; why people in the penal system are liberated by Prometheus Bound; and how Heracles has changed the way that some doctors manage end-of-life care. In drawing on such extraordinarily intimate experiences, and in telling his own story of loss and learning, Doerries illustrates the redemptive potential of one of the oldest human art-forms, and the power of re-enacting.
The Theatre of War is a passionate, humane, and purposeful book that shows how suffering and healing are part of an eternally replicable process, and argues that the great tragedies of the Greeks can still light a clear path forward through contemporary society’s most tangled issues.
4. True Hallucinations by Terence McKenna
Like a lovely psychedelic sophist, McKenna recounts his adventures with psychoactive plants in the Amazon Basin. Either a profoundly psychotic episode or a galvanizing glimpse into the true nature of time & mind, McKenna is a spellbinding storyteller, providing plenty of down-to-earth reasons for preserving the planet.
1 The Call of the Secret
2 Into the Devil’s Paradise
3 Along a Ghostly Trail
4 Camped by a Doorway
5 A Brush with the Other
6 Kathmandu Interlude
7 A Violet Psychofluid
8 The Opus Clarified
9 A Conversation Over Saucers
10 More on the Opus
11 The Experiment at La Chorrera
12 In the Vortex
13 At Play in the Fields of the Lord
14 Looking Backward
15 A Saucer Full of Secrets
17 Waltzing the Enigma
18 Say What Does It Mean?
19 The Coming of the Strophariad
20 The Hawaiian Connection
5. When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by Gabor Maté
In this accessible and groundbreaking book–filled with the moving stories of real people–medical doctor and bestselling author Gabor Maté shows that emotion and psychological stress play a powerful role in the onset of chronic illness, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, multiple sclerosis and many others, even Alzheimer’s disease.
When the Body Says No is an impressive contribution to research on the physiological connection between life’s stresses and emotions and the body systems governing nerves, immune apparatus and hormones. With great compassion and erudition, Gabor Maté demystifies medical science and, as he did in Scattered Minds, invites us all to be our own health advocates.