What is PTSD?
Soldiers returning from war can carry deep scars of trauma on their bodies. These scars tell of the battles they’ve been through and the pain they’ve endured. But the scars you can’t see — trauma inflicted on the mind and the soul — are just as damaging, just as permanent and often more difficult to overcome.
In recent years, much has been reported in the media about the issue of military post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. As a result, military families now know the signs and symptoms of PTSD and what to do to seek help for their loved ones. But PTSD is far more widespread, well beyond our military population. The aftermath of trauma — regardless of its source — affects approximately 10 percent of women and four percent of men, who develop PTSD during their lifetimes.1 Therefore, the need is great for more education and effective treatment options and to make those options available for everyone.
Reliving and Avoiding
The PTSD cycle can begin when a person has survived some form of terrible trauma. Person-to-person violence, including rape or physical assaults, can cause PTSD symptoms. In some people, natural disasters, such as earthquakes or flooding, have also been associated with PTSD symptoms. Car accidents and train accidents — or even witnessing natural or unnatural disaster — can cause symptoms to appear.
Symptoms of PTSD can vary dramatically from person to person, but many relive unwanted memories of their traumatic episode. Some of those memories manifest through dreams or hallucinations. Some people feel as though they’re watching a looped video of the event, and they’re unable to stop it.
Some people with PTSD feel comfortable talking about their episodes when they take place, but other people may react in the following ways:
- Avoid people, places and things that might trigger a memory
- Seem alert and agitated, waiting for a flashback to appear
- Avoid sleeping or be unable to sleep
- Forget key aspects of the event or refuse to discuss the event at all
People with PTSD may withdraw from the people they love, turning inward as a self-defense mechanism. They may worry that if they share their thoughts, the situation will be worse, or they may feel as though no one will understand them. Some experience survivor’s guilt, if traumatized by a deadly event where others perished. People with PTSD may become so isolated and alone that they may refuse to leave their homes or interact with the people they love. Even though therapy can be helpful, not everyone suffering from PTSD gets help.
In 2014 only 53 percent of the U.S. veterans diagnosed with PTSD received treatment for their condition.2
Many, especially in the military, may not pursue treatment for fear of being perceived as weak. It’s important to note that PTSD has nothing to do with moral character or strength. Instead, it’s a defense mechanism produced by the brain that results in a set of compulsive behaviors. These are just the sorts of issues that respond well to therapy.
PTSD and Addiction
In a study from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, it was reported that up to 46 percent of people with PTSD also meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.3 It’s common for people with PTSD to turn to addictive drugs as they look for relief from the memories that flood their minds. Alcohol and sedating drugs seem to do the trick, at first as they might provide people with the opportunity to fall asleep, and they may help people to feel a bit calmer and more in control. Addictive drugs can make PTSD symptoms much worse, however, resulting in the following:
- Reduce the quality of sleep, making insomnia more likely
- Dampen feelings of connectivity, increasing a sense of isolation
- Increase memory loss
- Cause irritability or hot-headedness
- Increase a sense of depression
People with PTSD who lean on addictive drugs may develop signs of addiction without even realizing their drug use is problematic. Addictions can develop quickly, especially with heavy use, and therapy is the best way to combat them.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help people suffering from PTSD understand how they think about what has happened and how some common thoughts might increase stress and despair. For example, people who blame themselves for the deaths of others might be encouraged to challenge the idea that they could have saved the people they loved. It’s hard for one person to stop a war or keep a plane from crashing, and it’s hard for one person to control the acts of others.
Therapy might help people learn how to forgive themselves, and fight the control of destructive thoughts.
Exposure Therapy allows people to do what they might be avoiding: discuss the event at length, over and over again. Some therapists ask their clients to break the event into small chunks, just dealing with the outer edges of the trauma until the person feels ready to move ever closer to the center of the issue. Other therapists provide their clients with a series of negative memories all at once, in a technique known as flooding. By dealing with the entire trauma in one immersion session, clients may be able to process a significant amount of pain and move forward.
Talk therapy provides the opportunity to learn more about how addictions work and how mental stress can lead to an increase in substance abuse. Those who have co-occurring issues such as PTSD and drug dependence can learn alternate techniques to deal with stress and symptomatic behaviors.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
In an EMDR session, clients are asked to think about or talk about the traumatic event they went through while a counselor provides some other form of stimuli to focus on. Most therapists use a series of hand movements and ask their clients to watch these movements as they talk. Some therapists use computers and ask their clients to watch the movement on the screen as they talk.
Some others use hand taps or sounds instead of hand movements. Eye movement helps the brain to soothe itself and process the memories that go flitting by. And while it’s not quite clear why EMDR can be helpful for people who have PTSD, multiple studies have demonstrated that people who obtain this form of therapy experience great relief.4
Other Therapy Options
Medications might play a role in healing for some people who have PTSD. People with addictions, for example, might benefit from replacement therapies that can mimic the action of the drugs they were once addicted to. People with underlying issues of depression might improve when given antidepressant medications.
Even anti-anxiety medications have been helpful for some people with PTSD as the drugs help people to feel a bit calmer and more in control.This is a personal decision, however, and not everyone who has PTSD will need drugs in order to get better.
Some people enjoy spending time with others who have PTSD. Support groups for veterans, for example, can provide those people returning from combat with the opportunity to speak with others who have been through the traumas of war and have their own stories of loss and recovery.
Support groups for addiction can be helpful for others, providing insight and tools they can put into place when they are stressed or tempted to use substances to deal with symptoms.
Sean M., who suffered from PTSD and alcohol dependence, is now over six years sober: “To anyone who is struggling, I would say, just listen to others who have been around the program or who have been in recovery for a while. It does get better. The analogy I use frequently is, that in every rain storm the sun does come out, you just have to weather the storm. Sometimes you may need others to walk with you in the storm and hold the umbrella, but it does get better.”
–Read more of Sean M.’s HeroesInRecovery story here.
Alternative therapies might also be helpful for people with PTSD.
Meditation exercises, for example, helps people to learn how to experience memories without feeling overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness meditation helps sufferers focus on breathing and keep their minds clear and open as the mind does its work. Memories might enter the mind, but the person need not label that memory as good or bad or do anything about that memory. Instead, the person is encouraged to acknowledge the memory and the feeling associated with it, appropriately processing the past.
Help at Black Bear
Our trauma resolution program at Black Bear Rehab is designed to help people with PTSD learn how to overcome their experiences, and the way those experiences have changed the way they view themselves and the world. We provide talk therapy sessions, and we also provide other therapies like EMDR sessions for our clients.
All our programs are customized, based on the needs of each client and their personal history of trauma. If you have any questions about this program or you’d like to enroll, please call us at our toll-free, 24-hour helpline today at 706-914-2327.
1 “PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. 20 July 2017. Web. Accessed 14 July 2017.
2 “Only half the vets with PTSD are getting treatment: report.” CBS News. The Associated Press. 20 June 2014 Web. Accessed 14 July 2017.
3 “Treatment of Co-Occurring PTSD and Substance Use Disorder in VA.” U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. 15 May 2017. Web. Accessed 14 July 2017.
4 “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD.” U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. 17 July 2017. Web. Accessed 14 July 2017.