What is PTSD?
Any of us can, without warning, be caught up in a traumatic event that is overwhelming, frightening, life-threatening (to ourselves or others) and beyond our control. This could be:
- getting a diagnosis of a serious illness
- having (or seeing) a serious road accident
- the unexpected injury or violent death of someone close
- being taken hostage or assaulted
- being a prisoner-of-war.
After such an event, most people feel distressed and can have symptoms for some time. Everyone will react differently, bit it is common to feel anxious, angry, emotional, shaky and to have difficulty putting the event out of our mind. This is called Acute Stress Reaction. Fortunately, this usually fades over a period of days or weeks.
Sometimes, the acute reaction doesn’t go away and you can develop a more severe condition referred to as PTSD.
PTSD can also be triggered by less acute, but equally distressing and longer-lasting traumas, such as on-going mistreatment, and physical or sexual abuse in the home.
Does everyone get PTSD after a traumatic experience?
No. Most people get an Acute Stress Reaction which has some overlap with PTSD symptoms. These usually go way, but not everyone is so lucky. About 1 in 3 people will find that their symptoms just continue and can’t come to terms with what has happened. It is as though the process has become stuck.
When does PTSD start?
The symptoms usually start within a few weeks of the trauma, but they can start up to 6 months later.
What does PTSD feel like?
After the traumatic event you can feel grief-stricken, depressed, anxious, guilty and angry. With PTSD you may also:
- have flashbacks and nightmares – you relive the event in your mind, again and again
- avoid thinking about it and feeling upset by keeping busy and avoiding anything or anyone that reminds you of it
- be ‘on guard’ – you stay alert all the time, can’t relax, feel anxious and can’t sleep
- get physical symptoms – aches and pains, diarrhoea, irregular heartbeats, headaches, feelings of panic and fear, depression
- start drinking too much alcohol or using drugs (including painkillers).
How do I know when I’ve got over a traumatic experience?
When you can:
- Think about it without becoming distressed
- Not feel constantly under threat
- Not think about it at inappropriate times.
How to help yourself
- Seek help and support – from professionals, friends and family.
- If possible, try to get back to your usual routine.
- Talk about what happened to someone you trust and try relaxation exercises.
- Eat regularly, take exercise and spend time with family and friends.
- The event may have made you avoid something – perhaps driving or going out. Be aware of this and, if you think it’s possible, try to overcome the fear. This may be difficult and may need to be done gradually.
- Take care with driving – you are more likely to have an accident while you feel like this.
- Try not to avoid other people.
- Try not to resort to alcohol or street drugs to help you cope. These will make it more difficult to get better.
- Body-focused therapies, such as physiotherapy and osteopathy, massage, acupuncture, reflexology, yoga, pilates, medication (see your GP) and Tai Chi. These can help you to control your distress, to reduce the feeling of being ‘on guard’ at all time, and to focus on the ‘here and now’ experiences rather than the past.
Most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself or expect too much of yourself. PTSD is not a sign of weakness. The strongest person can get it.
How other people can help you
- Some people think it can be helpful to let those around you know about your mental health problems, whether they are family, friends or colleagues at work. This may help people know what things can help you, especially during times of crisis.
- It is not easy to be open with people about these issues. It may help to discuss this with your doctors or mental health team to decide if this is the right approach for you.
Samaritans – Helpline 116 123
Visit: www.samaritans.org Confidential emotional support for anyone, 24 hours a day – 7 days a week.
SANEline – 0300 3047000
Visit: www.sane.org.uk. Offers practical care and support to anybody affected by mental health problems. Open 4.30pm – 11pm daily.
Further Reading And On-Line Courses:
Written by Mental Health Partnership Forum, in co-production with the EPUT lived experience volunteers