Individuals who have experienced or witnessed trauma sometimes suffer severe and debilitating long-term effects. It appears that shocking the nervous system in an extreme way changes the manner in which the brain processes information. While over half of the general population will experience a traumatic event of some kind in their lifetime, not all of these people will develop full blown post-traumatic stress.
Post-traumatic stress is common among members of the military as a reaction to things they have seen and experienced in combat. Between 11-20% of Iraq War veterans experience PTSD each year. But veterans are not the only group of people who are dealing with this disorder.
The predisposition to PTSD could actually be inherited. There are genetic factors and other variables at play. There are certain neuroreceptors in the brain of PTSD survivors that differ from those who experience trauma without developing symptoms. Witnessing a death or natural disaster is still traumatic, but less apt to cause the development of PTSD. Being personally physically harmed, either through assault or sexualized violence, increases the likelihood of symptoms after the event. Early studies of PTSD focused on male Vietnam War veterans, but women who have been sexually assaulted are actually more likely than men to develop PTSD.
- Sexual assault survivors are six times more likely to develop PTSD.
- One out of every six women in the United States will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.
- Women are more than twice as likely as men to suffer from PTSD.
- 10% of women have PTSD, while only 4% of men develop the disorder.
Factors that increase the chance of developing PTSD:
- Having a pre-existing mental condition such as depression or anxiety
- Accumulation of additional traumatic experiences after the event
- Physical harm or sexual violation
- Lack of support
The feelings surrounding the trauma and the patient’s memory of the event become disconnected. Some of the major symptoms include:
- Avoidance and numbing
Survivors can lose interest in things they once enjoyed. They might feel their future narrowing and believe they can never have a normal life. They might avoid specific things that trigger their associations with experienced trauma. Drug use increases also as a way to self-medicate. They are at a much higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as self-harm and suicidal ideation.
- Increased anxiety and hyper-vigilance
Patients might be easily startled and jumpy. They can experience outbursts of anger, worry, anxiety and have a difficult time focusing. They can feel constantly on guard and have disturbances in sleep.
- Re-experiencing the event with intrusive thoughts
Flashbacks or nightmares are common. Associated with these traumatizing memories can often be physical symptoms of stress, such as nausea, sweating, tension, increased pulse rate and rapid breathing. They can feel as they are reliving the event long after the immediate danger has passed.
Treatment Methods and Recovery
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common treatment method for PTSD patients. Medications such as antidepressants can be prescribed to help alleviate secondary symptoms associated with PTSD. In some states, medical cannabis has been approved for helping alleviate PTSD symptoms. Eye Movement Rapid Desensitization Therapy combines elements of cognitive behavioral therapy and physical movement to help move the brain and nervous system out of a self-destructive feedback loop.
While PTSD therapy methods may not change the past or delete the traumatic experience, they can help by providing good coping skills and allowing the survivor to move ahead with their life. The ultimate goal is to break out of the place in the brain and body that is frozen by trauma.