About 70 percent of adults in the U.S. will experience some type of traumatic event at some point in their lives, and among these people about 20 percent will go on to develop the condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experience PTSD symptoms.
The U.S Department of Veteran Affairs states that PTSD is a mental health problem that commonly occurs in veterans following combat. However, someone certainly doesn’t have to serve in the military to deal with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
PTSD symptoms can affect both children and adults who have dealt with completely different types of traumatizing events. Risk factors for suffering from PTSD include:
Mental health professionals who treat patients with PTSD typically use a combination of approaches to help their patients manage PTSD symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, depression and social isolation. These can include medications (when needed), “talk therapy” or counseling, group support, and other natural outlets for negative emotions, like exercise or meditation.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health problem that is defined as “psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.”
What does PTSD do to a person? Trauma can haunt a person after experiencing one or more difficult and painful events, affecting that person’s ability to live a normal, daily life by increasing PTSD symptoms like anxiety.
To officially be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must meet the following criteria for at least one month:
News published in 2020 by the University of Toronto found that there’s often a link between poor nutrition and experiences of PTSD. Among Canadians between the ages of 45 and 85, adults were less likely to exhibit PTSD if they consumed an average of two to three fiber sources daily.
Dietary fiber is believed by researchers to have some mental health-related protective effects due to the communication network that connects the gut and brain.
Eating a fiber-rich diet has beneficial effects on metabolic byproducts of bacterial fermentation made by microbes in the human gut. These byproducts affect how cells in the brain may work.
Daily consumption of pastries, sugary pulses, nuts, including peanut butter, and chocolate was associated with increased risk for PTSD.
Other risk factors that may be related to nutrition that increase the odds of someone developing PTSD symptoms include:
The majority of people who have “normal” coping mechanisms usually recover from initial symptoms of shock or sadness within a short time period. What makes PTSD symptoms different from negative emotions that are considered normal aspects of grief or healing?
In those who don’t have PTSD, an upsetting or dangerous event can cause serious symptoms, but the symptoms usually go away after a few weeks. (This is called acute stress disorder.) On the contrary, long after the dangerous or upsetting event is over, people with post-traumatic stress still feel very anxious, unable to express themselves and in general “not themselves.”
What are the four types of PTSD symptoms? They are generally grouped into four types:
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, a patient’s symptoms must:
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, some of the most common PTSD symptoms include:
PTSD symptoms usually begin shortly after the event takes place. Typically symptoms start within three months and last for up to a year.
However, sometimes abnormal symptoms might not appear for up to several years after the event has ended. This delay can sometimes make seeking help and getting a proper diagnosis a complicated issue.
Some experts consider PTSD to be divided into four phases:
Every person has a different experience. Some overcome their symptoms and reach a stage considered to be “recovery” within about six months.
Others with “complex PTSD symptoms” deal with symptoms such as anxiety, guilt, shame, isolation and suicidal thoughts for years. Complex PTSD symptoms usually result from trauma that happened early in life (such as by a parent), happened for a long time and happened when the victim was alone.
Getting help from a mental health professional, seeking support from a group of peers or family and friends, and sometimes considering medication can all decrease the odds that PTSD will remain chronic and debilitating for many years.
Risk factors for post-traumatic stress disorder:
This disorder typically occurs after someone has experienced or witnessed a life-threatening event. These events may include war combat, a natural disaster, abuse or assault, an accident, illness, or sudden death of a loved one.
As mentioned earlier, those who are more likely to struggle with PTSD include:
Changes in the brain due to trauma:
Researchers, including neuroscientists (who study the brain) and psychotherapists (who study maladaptive behaviors), have found that people with PTSD display abnormal levels of certain stress hormones, in addition to experiencing changes in brain activity.
Other neurological and biochemical changes have also been shown to take place in the brains and bodies of those with PTSD, including in the limbic system (the primal, emotional center of the brain). Studies suggest that three of the primary areas impacted by trauma include:
Changes in the brain following traumatic events can even be similar to the types of neurological changes seen in patients with brain injuries due to impact, accidents, etc.
Essentially, PTSD occurs due to loss of normal “executive functioning.” In other words, it occurs due to a loss of the ability to identify cause and effect, grasp the long-term effects of behaviors or actions, and create plans for the future.
Past trauma may make someone less intuitive, emotional, visual, spatial and tactual but more sequential and analytical.
Changes in brain activity, including deactivation of the left hemisphere, directly impact the capacity to organize past experiences, put them into logical sequences, and translate shifting feelings and perceptions into words that can be expressed to others.
1. Therapy and Counseling
If you suspect that you or someone you know is suffering from PTSD, it’s best to reach out for help right away. When feelings become unbearable and interfere with normal life, ask a family member, teacher or your doctor for help.
You can refer to the National Institute of Mental Health’s Help for Mental Illnesses page to find a qualified mental health provider or social services worker in your area. In the case of an emergency (such as during a period of panic or major depression), an emergency room doctor can also provide temporary help.
Various types of psychotherapy (talk therapy) are used to help people overcome PTSD. The type of therapy depends on the situation and access to professional care.
Although many patients report experiencing increased distress during initial therapy sessions, as they get accustomed to discussing traumatic memories, one study found that talking about trauma in therapy sessions resulted in 86 percent of participants showing improvement in their PTSD and psychotic symptoms by the end of treatment.
One type that has been shown to be very effective is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in which thoughts are examined in order to determine how they affect behaviors and self-perception.
Some of the primary goals of therapy for PTSD include:
Therapists often work with patients with PTSD to help them learn to become more aware of their inner experience and to begin to befriend what is going on inside themselves. This includes physical sensations, emotions and thoughts.
Learning from past experiences and better vocalizing of feelings are other important areas to address. This is because helplessness and social withdrawal are both very common with PTSD.
2. Desensitization and Exposure to Fears
In addition to common types of talk therapy, several forms of exposure therapy are also used to desensitize patients to perceived threats, relieve stress and help them to face fears directly. A professional therapist usually conducts exposure therapy. The therapist can be a guide as the patient gradually faces situations, objects or locations that bring up strong feelings of the traumatic event.
3. Yoga and Meditation
In research supported by the National Institutes of Health, patients who took part in a 10-week program including yoga and mind-body practices on average experienced markedly reduced PTSD symptoms, even patients who had failed to respond to any previously used medications.
Yoga has been shown to change the brain by helping increase “happy” neurotransmitters, reducing the effects of stress, helping improve coping mechanisms for negative feelings and more. Participants in the study learned ways to help increase five specific types of positive, comforting feelings.
These feelings are GRACE:
Research suggests that another reason yoga and other forms of mind-body practices work so well for reducing PTSD symptoms is because they positively impact the nervous system. This is because they can change chemical signals sent via the vagus nerve back to the brain, helping promote relaxation.
Some of the ways that PTSD patients can directly tap in to their bodies’ “relaxation response” include:
There is also a lot of emerging data supporting mindfulness and meditation as an effective treatment approach for patients with PTSD due to how “neuroplasticity” (the brain’s ability to change itself based on repetition and focused attention) can improve neurological processes.
4. Social and Family Support
One of the strongest predictors of being able to overcome symptoms of PTSD is “building resilience” through social support and close relationships. Certain factors can help increase resilience, including:
5. Self-Care and Stress Management
In addition to getting support from others, self-care is crucial for managing stress and triggers. Experts recommend some of these strategies:
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