What is PTSD and Trauma

Man sitting trauma

Understanding PTSD and Trauma

What is PTSD?

PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a disorder that may arise after a person has experienced (directly or indirectly) a traumatic event. The term PTSD was first used in the 1980s. Before that, it was most commonly referred to as ‘shell shock’, as it was observed in veterans returning from war.

While many people will experience traumatic events throughout their lives and only have short-term distress that may not even require medical intervention, a small proportion of people will develop the disorder. Many of those (up to 70% is has been suggested) won’t receive any professional help.

What is a Traumatic Event?

A traumatic vvent is exposure to anything that causes a significant surge in negative emotion. This includes: Fear, helplessness, shame and horror. Traumatic events that lead to PTSD can occur both in childhood and adulthood. The events can be experienced directly, witnessed, or experienced second-hand e.g. hearing the details of the event. Examples include:

Childhood neglect and abuse
Bullying – in the playground or workplace
Abuse in a relationship
Road traffic accidents
Shock medical news
Violent physical assault
Traumatic medical interventions
Natural disasters
Military combat
Death and grief
Shock redundancy

A woman with PTSD

What are the effects of PTSD and Trauma?

PTSD manifests itself in different ways for different people. Symptoms can include (but are not limited to): Flashbacks, a sense of hyper-alertness, panic attacks, outbursts of anger and intense emotion, nightmares, fear, withdrawal, amnesia, insomnia and exhaustion.

Any, all or some of these symptoms can present themselves as part of the disorder, and can occur spontaneously and without warning, as well as being chronic.

PTSD and trauma: What happens in the brain?

The primary function of the human brain is to ensure our survival. ‘Modern’ humans have been around for 200,000 years, our brains evolving and developing into the form they take today. For most of our history, those things that would cause us to experience that significant surge of negative emotion (e.g. fear, helplessness, shame and horror) would also have been life threatening. This includes encountering dangerous animals while hunting or in the tribal home, and being kicked out of the tribe and having to fend for ourselves.

Survival mechanism

In order to assist our survival, the brain developed a mechanism whereby if we encounter something that it perceives has the chance to kill us, then it deems it important to remember the event forevermore in order to try to guide us away from encountering it again.

In that traumatic moment, the brain also suspends all but the most important physical and mental systems for survival, so that the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mechanism can work at its best.

Once the trauma is over and you are deemed ‘safe’ again, the brain is challenged in making sense of what has happened as memory functions were compromised while the safety system was prioritised. Nightmares, flashbacks and outbursts of intense emotions are all the brain’s way of attempting to process those experiences.

illustration of human brain PTSD

An unprocessed memory

At the same time, the event is flagged up as ‘important’ to be remembered, and is therefore not filed away in the normal way that memories are. Usually, while we are asleep, the events of the day are taken from the emotional memory and filed into the episodic memory, also known as our autobiographical memory. Here our experiences become the story of what has happened to us, with a limited amount of emotion attached.

Without further processing, these memories will continue to prove troublesome, manifesting in PTSD and other trauma-related illnesses.

What treatment is there for PTSD?

The most effective forms of treatment for trauma involve working directly with the root cause of the PTSD. Therapies, including EMDR and Cognitive Hypnotherapy, reduce the level of emotional distress attached to the original event, so that it can be filed away more efficiently by the brain. Once the brain deems the event to no longer be a threat, the symptoms of PTSD will begin to resolve.

You can find out more about how my effective treatment for PTSD in Colchester, Essex here.

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