June is PTSD Awareness Month, and it’s more common than you might realize.
What is PTSD?
It’s estimated that approximately 20% of combat vets suffer from PTSD and only half will seek treatment. But they’re not alone. Originally noted by terms of “shell shock” and “battle fatigue”, we’ve come to realize that it’s not just soldiers who suffer from this. Anyone who has been subject to a severe emotional trauma can experience this as their mind tries to process what has happened.
Abuse victims, rape victims, victims of violent crimes, combat, natural disasters, etc. all take time to emotionally heal from what they’ve experienced. However when the symptoms are severe and they last more than four months, they may very well have PTSD.
It’s estimated that as many 8% of all Americans (over 24 million) will experience PTSD in their lifetime. We tend to hear the term thrown around but I wonder how many people really know what it is?
PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is characterized by three types of symptoms:
Reliving the event – Most commonly known as flashbacks or triggers, hearing a car backfire can trigger someone to re-experience sounds of gunfire, seeing a car accident can cause someone to relive their own traumatic event, etc. Something as subtle as a news broadcast or online video, a sound or even a smell can trigger this things during waking life. Reliving the event in dreams is common as well.
Avoidance of reminders – This can be avoiding tv or movies with similar subject matter such as war movies or ones with fires, earthquakes or one where a character is raped, or avoiding similar locations. For example, getting robbed at an atm may cause you to only take cash out when you’re at the store so you don’t have to go near the bank.
Having been in a shoe store when it got robbed caused one of my best friends to not be able to bring herself to go in that chain store again for many years; and not just that location but all of them since they all look-alike.
Feeling numb or keyed up – Staying “numb”, shutting down emotionally as a means of not dealing with feeling… with people, activities or even forgetting parts of the traumatic event or just not be able to talk about them.
Being “keyed up” includes sudden rushes to anger or irritability, trouble sleeping or concentrating, becoming almost paranoid about your safety or startling very easily.
I was working in a restaurant years ago as an hourly supervisor when we were robbed at gunpoint. No one was hurt thankfully and it was over in about a minute. It was my last day of work before vacation which I thought was a blessing at the time but it turned out to be my downfall. With not being there, I wasn’t able to deal with it and fear took over. When I did go back to work, I couldn’t be anywhere near the register without breaking into a sweat from a panic attack. My boss was very understanding and accommodated me stepping down from my supervisory position for a couple of weeks and kept me in the kitchen. Sadly it just got worse.
After 9 years with the company I wound up putting in my notice and left because I just couldn’t handle even being in the building anymore. I had nightmares regularly for a couple of years after the incident, each time I wound up getting shot, even though no one got hurt in real life.
A year later my family and I went out to dinner (my daughter was 4 at the time) and my sister noticed a sign that it was supposed to be family night complete with a clown and balloons. As the server came by my sister asked where the clown was and that my daughter would enjoy a balloon only to be told that he had already left for the night since there weren’t many children in the restaurant. I was tending to my daughter and heard my sister exclaim “we got robbed” – speaking of the clown and the balloons. I however broke into a cold sweat and started crying and eventually excused myself to go throw up. The very definition of being “keyed up” and “startling easily”
I’ve dealt with many things in my life, which to me (on paper at least) would seem to be more traumatic that this one minute window of time… but it derailed me for a several years. I have no idea why one incident would create such a lasting effect while others did not. I never sought help, in fact I didn’t even know that what I experienced even had a name. It wasn’t until many years later when I was retelling the story to someone when they told me it was PTSD. Had I or someone around me known what it was, I could have sought help to deal with it.
The effects of PTSD run deep
PTSD doesn’t just affect your moods and your dreams. There is a physiological component to PTSD. Studies have shown that there are physical changes that take place in the brain. In other words, your brain gets rewired. That’s why overcoming it is so difficult. Most affected are the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.
The brain controls everything, so physiological changes can affect all areas of your body and life. The limbic system, located deep in the cerebrum, is composed of the amygdala, the hippocampus and they hypothalamus.
The amygdala deals with our primal instincts – fear, panic and all that’s associated with it; Heart rate changes, sweaty palms, tremors, even nausea and diarrhea.
The hippocampus handles memory which is why people with PTSD can lose sections of their memory and even what’s called “anterograde amnesia” which is the inability to form new memories even if the old ones are completely intact. These changes are thought to be caused by increased exposure to cortisol, also known the “stress” hormone.
The hypothalamus controls hormone production. It affects sex drive, weight gain, sleep, thirst, body temperature, hunger and the release of hormones from other glands including the pituitary. The pituitary gland is a critical part of our ability to respond the environment around us, most often without our knowledge.
The prefrontal cortex area controls your cognitive behavior, decision-making and even appropriate social behavior.
That’s just the start of it. These changes convert into pain sensitivity, auto-immune disorders, fibromyalgia, etc. Alcohol and drug use and abuse are frequent occurrences as well in the attempt to self-medicate and cope with all that one is dealing with. As you can see, it’s not just a simple bad memory but your world being turned completely out of control.
If you’ve had symptoms like these, please find someone to talk to and know that you’re not alone. If you know someone who is having these issues, please give them the help and empathy they need to deal with it. Know that they have to heal in their own time. There is no schedule, no cure, no pill they can take to make it go away, just time, support and understanding.
June is PTSD awareness month, and I’m so glad that it’s getting a bit of a spotlight, but knowing exactly what it is, is crucial to dealing with it. So please, share the word.