Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing a frightening or dangerous event. Usually, PTSD occurs when the person or somebody around them has been harmed, or they have experienced a situation where they could have been harmed.
PTSD is commonly associated with war veterans and emergency services workers, but post-traumatic stress disorder can affect anybody, and rates of the condition are rising. Given the number of people living with PTSD, a greater understanding of what it means to live with this disorder, how to manage it, and when to seek help is needed in the wider community.
People with a recent diagnosis, or those with a loved one recently diagnosed, may ask how long they can expect the condition to last. This blog looks at the stages of PTSD, common signs such as mood symptoms, treatment options with a mental health professional, and how long it may last.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after exposure to a traumatic event which puts the person under an extreme amount of stress. It's important to note, not everyone who experiences potentially traumatic events will go on to develop PTSD. Experiences that could lead to PTSD include events such as physical or sexual assault, natural disasters, war, violence, accidents or near accidents, death, or suicide.
These experiences are common, around 50% of adults in the United States will go through a traumatic event, but the majority do not develop PTSD. Over time, most people's initial shock dissipates and they naturally recover from the trauma. Somebody who does develop PTSD after a traumatic event may experience intrusive, scary thoughts and memories of the event, interrupted sleep, feel empty, disassociate, have trouble concentrating, and may be extremely jumpy or anxious. These feelings of imminent danger persist even when they are no longer in a dangerous situation. PTSD can greatly impact somebody's ability to regulate their mood, socialize, work or go to school.
If you have experienced a traumatic event and the symptoms have not improved with time, support, and care, this could indicate you are living with PTSD.
PTSD develops when a traumatic event has not been processed. Traumatic events can range significantly in type and scope, and one event which traumatizes somebody may not leave another person traumatized. This is not a measure of somebody's strength or weakness, it is simply the body's response system.
People at risk of developing PTSD are those who have experienced any of the following situations.
People who have witnessed or been a victim of violence are at risk of developing PTSD. This could include domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, physical assault including muggings or attacks, and violence that takes place in a public place such as a shopping mall, school, or work.
People who are neglected or abandoned, particularly as young children, are at risk of developing PTSD. Childhood abuse or neglect can result in a case of adult post-traumatic stress disorder.
Events such as car, bus, or train accidents can be traumatic experiences. Other accidents include fires, falls, or injuries.
Any natural disaster such as earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and wildfires can result in PTSD.
Major catastrophic events such as acts of terrorism, shipwrecks, or a plane crash, as well as industrial accidents such as explosions, can be traumatic experiences.
Those who go through war, whether as military personnel or civilians, are likely to experience extremely traumatic events. Witnessing death and destruction, hearing bombs, and the death of loved ones, friends or acquaintances can cause post-traumatic stress disorder.
Being diagnosed with a severe illness, undergoing significant medical procedures, or witnessing a loved one going through severe physical pain or distress can also cause trauma. Being faced with death, either one's own or somebody else's can be a traumatic experience. This is especially true if death is sudden or imminent, such as in cases of suicide.
People who work in emergency services and witness traumatic situations such as police, nurses, firefighters, military, search and rescue, and coast guard, are all at risk of developing PTSD.
PTSD symptoms can develop at any time after a traumatic event. Typically they will start around one month after, but they can take months or even years to first appear. PTSD symptoms usually make it difficult for people to carry out everyday tasks and engage in normal activities. They may cause problems at work, or in personal relationships.
There are four main groups of symptoms: (1) intrusive memories, (2) avoidance, low mood, (3) negative thought patterns, and (4) disrupted physical and emotional reactions. All cases of PTSD are different, some people may experience phases while others have constant symptoms. Below we look at some of the main symptom groups.
Negative thought patterns and low mood
Changes in physical and emotional reactions
This is the initial stage directly after the traumatic event. The person may be in shock and struggling to grapple with what they have experienced.
This is where some people may attempt to save themselves from difficult feelings. They may avoid distressing feelings or disturbing thoughts which surface. Denial is a way for someone to protect themselves against further pain. People in this stage may describe feeling numb or empty.
Not everyone with PTSD will go through this stage.
This is where people may start to understand what happened in the traumatic event and how it impacted them. This stage is where acknowledgment is made and, for some people, it involves going back to the place where the event occurred.
During this stage, people may experience distressing emotions, repetitive thoughts, disturbing images, and extremely low moods. This stage can be extremely upsetting to go through, for both the individual at the center and those around them, but it is usually necessary for them to confront their experiences.
This is where the person begins to recover. This process can only start when they acknowledge that they are no longer in danger and their basic needs are being met. Sometimes this phase brings up confusing feelings about the role of others in their life and journey.
With professional treatment and compassionate care, people with PTSD can start to work through their trauma at this stage. They may begin to look forwards in a new way, making plans for the future and focussing on their recovery process.
It is common for people to continue to have low, anxious, or depressed moods, difficulty sleeping, and react with aggression or irritability at this stage.
With quality support from mental health professionals, people can move on to long-term recovery, also known as the integration stage.
This is where people work on integrating healthier coping strategies they have developed in prior stages into their everyday life. In this phase people may begin to feel better about their future, however, some people may still have fears which can manifest as depression or anxiety.
This stage can last for months or years, and some people move forwards and backward. Experiencing other difficult events which could be similar or dissimilar to the initial trauma can be triggering. Additionally, new stressful life events including changes at work, relationship breakdown, or having a baby can trigger distressing feelings.
However, if somebody has gone through effective treatment they are likely to have developed coping mechanisms to manage these feelings and move through them.
There is no quick answer for how long PTSD lasts, rather there are a number of factors that can impact how long someone experiences the condition. The type of trauma, how long the event lasted, the impact on the brain, how quickly they received treatment, co-existing mental health problems, and how responsive they were to therapy can all impact the duration of the condition.
Although effective treatment can help people to manage PTSD symptoms, the condition doesn't completely go away. The traumatic event can never be completely eradicated therefore the psychological impact is likely to be lifelong and can be triggered again. However, engaging in evidence-based therapies can give people with PTSD a much better quality of life and they can find joy and happiness in their futures.
There are several options available for the treatment of PTSD. Some people respond well to a combination of therapies to manage their symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is concerned with the person's thought patterns and behavior. Through working with a cognitive behavioral therapist you can learn to recognize unhelpful or negative thoughts and change them into positive ones. This can be an extremely effective and empowering form of therapy that can be utilized during the initial recovery stage and in the months and years after in triggering situations.
CBT focuses on the present moment, rather than getting stuck in the past or future, furthermore, it helps people develop healthier coping mechanisms. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, individuals can assess how they think about their trauma and how they could approach it in a more positive way.
People who engage with cognitive behavioral therapy often report they feel more in control of their symptoms and have a more positive outlook on life.
This form of talk therapy helps people to understand the roots of their mental health condition, and eventually create healthier strategies to cope with their distress. Working with a psychodynamic therapist, people will focus on their early life, feelings, thoughts, experiences, and ideas about the world. By recognizing how patterns may have emerged throughout their lives, people can find ways to manage their challenging PTSD symptoms. Psychodynamic psychotherapy can leave people with increased self-esteem and more positive emotions about the world, enabling them to tackle the difficulties of life with more confidence
Sensorimotor therapy is concerned with releasing trauma that is trapped within the body. As a holistic treatment option, sensorimotor therapy is especially effective at treating physical symptoms so it is especially recommended for people who have experienced things such as sexual abuse or physical violence.
Through this treatment therapists will create a safe place to explore the trauma which occurred, focussing on the physical symptoms. This enables people to process the event while being mindful of their bodily responses.
Eye movement desensitization & reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy that has been validated for the treatment of traumatic experiences, including PTSD.
This treatment sees people working with a therapist to identify a specific traumatic memory while focussing on a specific movement and sound. This process is found to reduce anxiety and increases people's understanding of their trauma. This can help people to process suppressed emotions and memories in a safe, secure environment.
At GIA Miami, we use evidence-based effective treatments to treat a range of mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether you have received a diagnosis or you are living with symptoms associated with PTSD, we are confident that we can help you find a better future.
Get in touch with us today to find out more about our admissions process, or simply to learn about our methods.
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