Thankfully, post-traumatic stress disorder has gotten a lot of press the last few years due to thousands of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have been injured psychologically by their military experiences. These hidden wounds are as real as physical injuries but can be much more difficult to assess and treat. And according to NIMH, 7.7 million American adults each year suffer from PTSD. PTSD can be caused by natural disasters such as hurricanes, earth quakes and floods as well as human-made disasters like car accidents and abuse of any kind.
PTSD is a mental injury—not a mental illness.
What exactly is PTSD? PTSD is considered an anxiety disorder and made up of three basic things: trauma, depression, and anxiety, with a side order of obsessive compulsive disorder because the person experiencing this mental injury is stuck in the past. How do you know if life has taken you down PTSD’s rocky road? If you experienced a traumatic event that threatened your life or someone else’s life—or threatened serious injury to you or someone else; if after a month has gone by you notice you aren't the same person you were before the event; if you are feeling depressed and anxious and can’t get the trauma out of your mind—then you’re likely suffering from PTSD to some degree.
The following are warning signs that therapists look for to determine if a client suffers from PTSD:
• Depression - Feel down in the dumps, sad; don’t feel like doing much or anything.
• Anxiety/panic attacks - Feel nervous, excessively worried to the point you feel like something bad is going to happen.
•Intrusive recollections – Unwanted thoughts of the trauma pop into your mind.
• Nightmares/night terrors – Have bad, upsetting dreams related to the trauma; wake in a panic and can’t remember the dream or nightmare.
• Flashbacks – A vivid memory of the trauma usually brought on by a trigger such as seeing, hearing, smelling, etc., something that reminds you of the trauma and makes you feel like it’s happening all over again.
• Loss of interest – You don’t do the things you used to enjoy or see family and friends you enjoyed being with prior to the trauma.
• Detachment or estrangement from others – Feel distant from other people; they don’t understand you or what you have gone through; feel distant from yourself; you don’t trust people the way you used to.
• Restricted range of affect – Not being able to feel close to people; unable to have loving feelings.
• Avoidance – Stay away from people, places and/or situations that remind you of the trauma.
• Isolation – You’d rather be by yourself than with others; you spend most of your time at home or in your room.
• Sense of foreshortened future – You don’t think you have much of a future or you can’t even think about the future.
• Difficulty falling or staying sleep – Your mind won’t shut down, your thoughts race; you are afraid to go to sleep because you might have nightmares or something bad will happen while you are sleeping. Once you wake at night, you can’t get back to sleep because of racing thoughts, fear of nightmares and other fears. Some veterans suffer from what we call “combat sleep disturbance”—waking every hour or two because of potential danger.
• Irritability or outbursts of anger – You have a short fuse and a tendency to overreact.
• Lack of concentration and pace – You forget where you put things, you lose things, you forget people's names—even people you know!; you find yourself reading the same sentence over again because you didn't understand what you just read; you can’t follow the plot of a television show or movie, you forget where you are going in the car and drive past your destination.
• Hyper-vigilance – You are super alert; on the look out for danger; checking out people and places for potential problems.
• Exaggerated startle response – You are easily startled by loud or unexpected noises, you don’t like being surprised.
The way we react, or overreact, to PTSD symptoms can be destructive for us and our loved ones. And to top it off, PTSD sufferers may fall into unhealthy habits like over-drinking or drugging; or might become workaholics to keep their minds off what’s really bothering them.
Fortunately, there are therapies that can help PTSD sufferers learn ways to cope with their symptoms. In the next column, we’ll tell you about a simple, effective new therapy: Time Perspective Therapy, which has helped veterans and civilians alike turn their lives around.
For more information on the effects of PTSD, see The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing,) and for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, www.thetimecure.com and www.lifehut.com.