Experiencing a traumatic event does not always mean you will go on to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact, it is completely normal to experience fear and anxiety after something traumatic has occurred. But over time, these symptoms should start to dissipate naturally.
If you or your loved one survived a traumatic event and any of the following statements are true for you, it is likely time to seek professional help:
- When disturbing symptoms persist 1 month after a traumatic event
- When symptoms seem to be getting worse over time
- When symptoms begin to impair social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning
- When you start avoiding more and more people, places, or things so that you don’t trigger symptoms or a stress reaction
- When feeling helpless or hopeless about your situation
- If attempts to cope with the trauma lead you to engage in unhealthy behaviors (e.g., alcohol or drug use, withdrawing from friends and family, risk-taking behavior)
The first step is finding the right trauma therapist for you. Your therapist should have experience working with trauma, specifically the kind of trauma you are looking for help with. Whoever you select should be someone you feel you can build a safe, trusting relationship with. Therapists are not one-size-fits-all! What will be the ideal therapist for your friend or partner may not be the best fit for you. It is completely fine to trial a therapist for a few sessions to find out if they are someone you can open up to. A good therapist will be supportive and create the environment you need to work through your struggles.
Once you’ve found the right trauma therapist, there are a variety of treatment options available that are evidence-based (i.e., well researched and found to be effective). Whether you want individual sessions or group sessions with others who have been through something similar to you, there is an approach that will bring symptom relief.
No single treatment is effective for everyone. It may take time to find the right fit for you. Talking with a professional that you trust (e.g., family doctor, local clergy, local mental health association) might help point you in the right direction.
Take one step towards reclaiming your health today and liberate yourself from the past events that may be haunting you. Make your health a priority. You are worth it.
Historically, trauma referred to exceptionally horrific events like torture or abuse that you personally experienced. But over the last few decades, mental health professionals have to come to recognize that trauma can include a vast continuum of experiences.
So how do you know whether you or a loved one is experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a related stress disorder?
The International Society for Trauma Stress Studies defines trauma as “shocking and emotionally overwhelming situations that may involve actual or threaten[ed] death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity.” As you can see by this definition, the mental health community now recognizes that witnessing violence or threats of violence towards others also meets the definition of a traumatic event. This reconceptualization means there are most of us will be exposed to at least one traumatic event over the course of our lives.
But if most of us experience a traumatic event at some point in our lives, why is it that only some people have PTSD?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5th Edition (DSM-5), a diagnosis of PTSD includes the following:
- Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
- Intrusive symptoms following the event, such as flashbacks, recurring dreams, or strong bodily reactions when exposed to triggers related to the event.
- Avoidance of things that remind you of the event.
- A negative change in thoughts or mood following the event.
- Feeling hypervigilant or highly aroused (e.g., easily started, feeling “on edge,” difficulty sleeping) following the event.
If you or your loved one does not experience all these symptoms, they most likely do not have PTSD.
But don’t be mistaken… someone may not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, but they may still experience posttraumatic stress.
For example, Acute Stress Disorder may occur immediately after exposure to a traumatic event but generally resolves within 1 month. Symptoms that persist beyond that benchmark are likely to be more appropriately labeled as PTSD.
The key to appropriate diagnosis and treatment is time. Getting into treatment soon after a traumatic event may lead to a better prognosis. Whether you meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD or another stress-related disorder, there is always room to work on improving your health and liberating yourself from painful, traumatic experiences. So reach out to someone today and start your journey!