What is PTSD?
Soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can carry deep scars of trauma on their bodies, and their gnarled scar tissue can help them to tell the tales of the battles they’ve been through and the pain they’ve endured. But some trauma happens to the mind and to the soul, and these wounds can be harder to see and harder yet to overcome.
Media outlets have done an impressive job in recent years of bringing the issue of military post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to light and as a result, many families of returning soldiers know just what to do when the person who returns home doesn’t seem quite like the person who left for war. However, PTSD doesn’t only affect soldiers or those who witness war. This is a very large number, but there are might be cause for celebration here as well. As the recognition of the prevalence of PTSD has grown, so have the number of treatments that have been developed to combat the disorder. Now, people who are impacted have a very good chance of getting well once more.
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, but natural disasters, such as earthquakes or flooding, have also been associated with PTSD symptoms in some people. Car accidents and train accidents can also be traumatic, and they can also cause PTSD symptoms to appear in some people.
Symptoms of the disorder can vary dramatically from person to person, but people with PTSD often struggle with unwanted memories of their traumatic episode, and those memories burst through dreams or hallucinations. Some people feel as though they’re watching an endless movie of the event, and they’re unable to turn that unwanted signal off.
- 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 they’ll cause harm if they share their thoughts, or they may not feel as though anyone will understand them. They may also feel guilty for their low feelings, especially if others who went through the same experience did not survive.
Even though therapy can be helpful, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs reports that one in five people with PTSD symptoms admits that they might not get help because they’re worried about what others might think of them. Common reasons given include a fear that others would think they were 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 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers found that 80 percent of people who had PTSD had some other mental illness. Many of these people had addiction issues. 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.
- 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 that their use of drugs is problematic. Addictions can take hold quite suddenly, especially with heavy use, and when they’re in place, therapy is the best way to combat them.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help clients to 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 keep destructive thoughts from taking hold.
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. In a study of this form of therapy, published in the journal Behavior Therapy, researchers found that flooding helped people with PTSD to reduce their feelings of anxiety and depression. It seems to be a worthwhile technique for some people.
People with addictions as well as PTSD might benefit from talk therapy as well, as they’ll be provided with the opportunity to learn more about how addictions work and how mental stress can lead to an increase in substance abuse.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
This form of PTSD treatment is somewhat new, and it’s not quite clear why the therapy can be helpful for people who have PTSD. However, multiple studies have demonstrated that people who obtain this form of therapy experience great relief. For example, a study in the journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training found that people who were given EMDR showed significantly greater improvement in depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms than people who did not get the treatment. The EMDR group also needed fewer appointments and medications in order to get well.
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. It’s thought that the movement of the eyes helps the brain to soothe itself and process the memories that go flitting by, but again, more work must be done before this connection can be made clear.
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 addiction might also be helpful for some people, providing them with lessons they can put into place when a craving for drugs or alcohol begins to take hold.
Meditation exercises, for example, might allow people to learn how to simply experience their memories without feeling overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness meditation encourages participants to focus on their breathing and keep their minds clear and open as the mind does its work. Memories might come into the mind, but the person isn’t encouraged to label that memory as “good” or “bad,” and the person isn’t asked to do anything about that memory. Instead, the person might think, “I remember that, and I remember that I was upset.” By focusing on breathing and accepting the feelings that might come along with a memory, a person with PTSD could learn to let go.
Help at La Paloma
Our trauma resolution program at La Paloma 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 EMDR sessions for our clients.
All our programs are individualized, 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 today.