Dealing with trauma is not uncommon. It is subjective and affects every person differently. While the impact of trauma may be subtle for some, it is debilitating for others. How a particular event impacts an individual depends on many factors, including personal characteristics, specific factors of the event, developmental process, meaning of trauma, and other sociocultural factors.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that develops in some individuals after they experience an event that they perceive as shocking, scary, or otherwise dangerous. PTSD is a complex mental health diagnosis that interferes with an individual’s ability to function normally in daily life. To better understand the nature of PTSD, it may help to recognize the physical and psychological effects that it has on an individual.
The Fight-Or-Flight Response
Our body has a natural stress response that activates when exposed to seemingly life-threatening situations. This response is called the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to perceived stressful or frightening stimuli. Our subjective perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the mind and body to prepare to fight the stimuli or flee.
In many cases, this natural body response is necessary. It is a survival mechanism that helps us react quickly when under stress or threat. On the other hand, the fight-or-flight response can also activate when we perceive stressors that are not life-threatening. Repeated activation of this response takes a toll on the mind and body.
When people experience a traumatic event or have PTSD, they may no longer associate the world with being a safe place. Their body and mind may feel as if danger is everywhere and that they must be on edge. As a result, a person may experience this repeated activation of the fight-or-flight system and be in a constant state of fear or anxiety.
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must meet all of the following criteria for at least one month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom
- At least one avoidance symptom
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms
Re-experiencing symptoms include:
- Frightening thoughts
Avoidance symptoms include:
- Avoiding places, events, or things that may serve as reminders of a traumatic experience
- Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic experience
Arousal and reactivity symptoms include:
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or on edge
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Having angry outbursts
Cognition and mood symptoms include:
- Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic experience
- Negative thoughts about self-worth or the world
- Distorted feelings like guilt, shame, or blame
- Loss of interest in activities once found enjoyable
It is normal for symptoms to occur as a result of any traumatic event, especially a few weeks following it. However, when symptoms last more than one month and seriously impact an individual’s ability to function, they may be struggling with PTSD.
Potential Causes and Risk Factors
Individuals that develop PTSD may do so as a result of experiencing, seeing, or learning about an event that may involve actual or threatened death, injury, or abuse. However, there is no one root cause of PTSD. Some examples of common causes that may lead to PTSD include:
- Overwhelming life experiences, including the amount and severity of trauma that you have experienced throughout your life
- Experiencing serious accidents
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Exposure to traumatic events at work or school
- Being diagnosed with serious health problems
- Being verbally threatened
Since trauma is subjective, there is no one way to tell whether or not someone will develop PTSD as a response to an event that they perceive as threatening or dangerous. Instead, it may help to understand the increased risk factors that can make an individual more likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event. These factors may include:
- Experiencing long-lasting or intense trauma
- Experiencing unresolved childhood trauma, such as abuse or neglect
- Lacking healthy social support systems or quality relationships with family members or friends
- Having genetic mental health problems in the family, such as inherited conditions like depression or anxiety
- Experiencing other mental health problems
- Experiencing substance use issues
It is essential to recognize that healing takes time. Sometimes, treating normal symptoms such as anger, denial, or guilt may not be helpful directly following the traumatic event. However, after experiencing a traumatic event, it is vital to quickly reach out for support from loved ones to prevent symptoms from worsening or developing into PTSD. Support from others may also help to prevent you from turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms and help you to realize that you are not alone in your experiences.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that may develop after experiencing an event perceived as stressful, frightening, or life-threatening. PTSD is a complex condition that interferes with an individual’s ability to function normally in their daily life. There is no one root cause of PTSD because trauma is subjective. Increased risk factors for developing PTSD may include experiencing long-lasting or intense trauma, lacking social support, or experiencing other mental health or substance use issues. SoCal Mental Health is a crisis stabilization and transitional residential treatment center that recognizes the severe impact trauma can have on an individual. We offer medication-assisted treatment, psychotherapy, and holistic therapy modalities to help individualize our clients’ unique treatment experiences. We are dedicated to helping you find peace and clarity in your life again, free from PTSD symptoms. Call SoCal today to learn more at (714) 328-4760.