PTSD has two sides: life before trauma and life after. People living with post-traumatic stress disorder can often clearly recall the exact moment their life changed forever.
It could be surviving a near-death situation, assault, abuse, witnessing a traumatic event, or living through serious health problems or emotionally distressing situations.
While the typical image of someone with PTSD in the media is a war-ridden soldier, reality paints with a much broader stroke.
Post-traumatic stress disorder affects up to 3.9% of the world’s population; in South Africa, 2.3% of the population experiences PTSD in their lifetime.
Trauma does not discriminate. Anyone can suffer from PTSD at any age, including small children.
What causes post-traumatic stress disorder? And what is it really like to live with this debilitating condition?
People who live with PTSD often feel like there is no hope. They feel broken, damaged, and incapable of ever living the way they did before their trauma.
Nearly half of people with PTSD also have a co-occurring substance use disorder, and they also face a much higher risk of suicide attempts.
This may be linked to the high prevalence of PTSD sufferers who also struggle with clinical depression.
Getting help starts by recognising the symptoms of PTSD. The more you can understand this is your trauma, not you, the easier it is to reach out and ask for help.
Rather than see yourself as hopeless and beyond healing, realising your PTSD is only one part of your life can open the door to change.
How PTSD Really Looks
People with PTSD may have extreme emotional reactions at times, but many suffer in silence.
After living through a traumatic event, people may begin to experience different symptoms in the weeks following their trauma.
Common experiences among people with post-traumatic stress disorder include:
- Unwanted, intrusive thoughts and images about the event
- Intense flashbacks that can trigger anxiety and panic attacks
- Fear of exposure to trauma reminders and direct efforts to avoid them
- Persistent negative thoughts and emotions toward oneself
- Physical symptoms, like racing heartbeat, shaking, sweating, and dizziness
- Always feeling “on edge” and scanning the environment for threats (hypervigilance)
- An increase in nightmares and difficulties sleeping
- Using drugs, alcohol, or reckless/destructive behaviours to cope
- Withdrawing from others and wanting to be alone most of the time
Someone with PTSD might avoid their family or friends because they do not feel comfortable around anyone anymore. They are constantly in a state of fear in their bodies.
Imagine living with the fight-or-flight response on 24-hours a day. For someone with PTSD, this can be a reality. From the moment they wake up, they feel unsafe.
They may logically know that the traumatic event is over, but their brain and body are always forcing them to relive the event.
Living with PTSD can feel like being stuck in a time loop. Although the world around them progresses, their body and minds are constantly trapped in the same moment.
No matter how much they try to move on, it’s as though something forcibly pulls them back. They are endlessly repeating what happened, struggling to process their emotions, and increasingly losing any sense of direction.
This is why so many people with post-traumatic stress feel lost and turn to drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms.
They desperately long for an escape, and anything that can numb their intense emotional reactions feels like a reprieve.
Unfortunately, substance abuse only worsens mental health issues. As an anxiety disorder, PTSD is particularly likely to be worsened by certain drugs.
Drinking can also lead to more rumination, or excessively thinking about the same thoughts over and over again.
Anxiety Attacks and PTSD
While flashbacks are common, many people with post-traumatic stress disorder also live with chronic anxiety.
Even if they are not actively reliving the event, they will feel a constant sense of discomfort, worry, and unease.
Anxiety and panic attacks may seemingly come out of nowhere, or they could result from exposure to a traumatic trigger.
Trauma triggers can be obvious or take you off guard. For example, someone who survived a car crash may be triggered by loud noises or the sound of glass breaking.
A person who was assaulted during the winter may even feel triggered by cold weather and snow.
PTSD can make someone feel as though all their senses are distorted. Something as mundane as the colour of a stranger’s shirt or the texture of a blanket may trigger their anxiety or even a flashback
Panic attacks are more intense anxiety attacks. They include intense physical symptoms, and people often fear that they are dying during them.
A panic attack can also be “quiet,” in that you suffer silently but are actually dealing with intense feelings of fear, dread, and impending doom.
Because trauma and anxiety are so closely linked, treating one without the other is often ineffective.
In order to truly heal, a person must learn how to feel safe in the present while recovering from the trauma of their past.
Struggles With Sleep
While many people turn to sleep as an escape, it can be just another form of anxiety for someone with PTSD.
Research shows that trauma survivors experience more frequent nightmares and suffer from sleep disturbances more often.
An increase in brain activity can result in intense nightmares. This is not surprising as the “fear centre” of the brain — the amygdala — is often more active among people with PTSD and anxiety.
Struggling with insomnia or broken sleep can ultimately leave people feeling worse throughout the day.
All the physical symptoms of PTSD — headache, stomachache, dizziness, nausea, racing heart — can feel even more intense and difficult to manage.
Healing trauma can also help decrease the frequency and intensity of all its side effects. People who go through trauma-specific therapy can begin to recover, gradually, and regain control over their lives.
What causes PTSD?
Trauma leaves an impression on the body as much as the mind. Many people think that it’s only abnormal thoughts triggering their PTSD, but the entire body is actually involved.
During a period of trauma, the body enters survival mode, aka the fight-or-flight response. Recently, this model has been adapted to include another action: freeze.
Some people are completely paralysed during moments of immense fear and stress. They may literally be frozen to the spot, unable to react or even really process what is happening.
Although the situation ends, they essentially stay “stuck” at this moment.
Their body remains locked into its traumatic state, unable to fully resolve the emotional and physical effects of what it’s experienced.
The problem with PTSD — and its biggest cause — is that the brain does not process the traumatic event as a memory. The brain and body never see it as something that happened in the past.
So, although a person may logically know that an event is over, any reminder of it causes their body to have the exact same feelings, sensations, and panic it went through at the moment of the event.
The brain also attaches certain sensory inputs to the event — sights, sounds, smells — that go on to form triggers later.
This is why things that even remotely resemble something related to a traumatic event can lead to flashbacks and panic attacks.
How to Heal From PTSD
It is not easy to recover from trauma, but it is possible. One of the first things people learn how to do in therapy is to accept that their trauma exists.
Living with PTSD is often like running in place. You are constantly trying to avoid reminders of what happened, but you never get anywhere.
Therapy invites you to finally stop running. You can gradually come to terms with your trauma, guided by your therapist in a safe, patient environment.
An important part of trauma therapy is learning to validate your experience. There is no threshold for a traumatic event.
While some people may live through objectively horrible scenarios, other events that seem minor or even unimportant can have a traumatic effect on someone else.
You deserve to know that your trauma is real. The physical and emotional symptoms you face from PTSD are real, and they are treatable.
Trauma therapy helps you rediscover your power. Any sense of helplessness and fear you felt at that moment can be left in the past.
You can rediscover what it means to live comfortably in your own body and mind. And you can learn to process and release the pain, fear, and grief that you have been dealing with since you lived through trauma.
PTSD therapy programs often incorporate holistic treatments that allow you to establish a safe connection with your body.
Exercise intervention can help re-establish a mind-body connection, reduce trigger sensitivity, and lower emotional distress.
Art therapy, yoga, and mindfulness meditation can help you rebuild a safe space within yourself and gently reconnect with the world.
Another popular and highly successful treatment is EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy.
This therapy requires no medication, and it helps the brain naturally process, integrate, and recover from trauma using the guidance of a therapist’s movements.
Rapid eye movements are not the only option; this adaptable therapy can also use tones or tapping to help you heal from PTSD.
Find the Trauma Therapy You Need
We invite you to experience healing and recovery in our beautiful recovery villa. At White River Manor, you will have unlimited support as we help you move past PTSD and anything else you’re going through.
Our trauma-specific therapy program can be taken alone or in combination with one of our addiction or mental health treatments.
Please contact us today to learn more about our therapy programs and how we can support you on your path to healing.