Post-Traumatic Stress: The Disability of Our Time

August 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Karin Friedemann, TMO

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychological problem that can affect people from any part of the globe, and from every social class. We can all sympathize with someone who lost his mind after his family got swept away by a tsunami. We have all heard stories of war veterans who were no longer the same after they came back home. Yet PTSD can also be triggered by seemingly minor events, such as being punished as a child for a misdeed one didn’t commit. It is increasingly documented that women involved with men on the autism spectrum are extremely likely to suffer from PTSD due to the constant emotional trauma of caring for a person disabled by a neurological disorder, which prevents him from responding appropriately to the needs of others.

PTSD was not labeled as a psychiatric disorder until 1980, but people have suffered from PTSD throughout the history of mankind. During the American Civil War it was called “Soldier’s Heart.” It is possible that the prevalence of PTSD has increased in recent years due to the ability to access graphic news on TV and the internet. Humans are now able to see traumatic events all over the world and some people have trouble coping with the images. On the other hand, the general public’s increasing emotional numbness to exposure to painful world events or even violent video games is also worrying and perhaps even more dangerous from a clinical standpoint.

People respond to emotional stress very differently. Some people can witness a barbaric event and yet bounce back and go on to lead healthy productive lives, but some people find they cannot recover their emotional balance after a negative experience. Some negative experiences are so shocking that they shake a person to their core. Yet some negative experiences are ongoing everyday experiences that undermine a person’s self-worth, and can also result in long lasting psychological damage.

People are best able to cope with negative life experiences when they have a deep emotional reservoir of positive life experiences and trust-based relationships. A person with a solid foundation of self-esteem and love can eventually heal from something as terrible as witnessing a murder while someone with a poor sense of self could fall apart just because his home went into foreclosure. Some people are simply more sensitive than others. It’s often hard to predict how one will react to traumatic stress until it happens. Having a history of trauma may increase one’s risk of getting PTSD after a recent traumatic event. There is a huge connection between childhood neglect or mistreatment and a person’s inability to process negative emotions.

While traumatic stress is happening, a person tends to block out the pain or reinterpret events in order to deal with the present situation. However, in the weeks, months, and years after the emotional trauma has passed, the person remains unable to cope effectively because of the memory of the pain. PTSD is characterized by periodic disconnect from present reality, where one’s mind relives a past event over and over, fully experiencing the emotions of that event as if it were happening now. One clue that one is not processing one’s stress effectively is when one feels exhausted during the day and falls asleep on time, yet wakes in the night burdened by repetitive thoughts and cannot go back to sleep for hours. Some people are even afraid to go to sleep due to nightmares or images in their minds.

Other symptoms of PTSD include disinterest in normal everyday activities, avoiding things that remind one of that event, emotional numbness, startling easily, hyper-vigilance, paranoia, erratic heartbeat, fainting, inordinately angry outbursts, intense shame and guilt, and a constant sense of danger. Traumatized children may develop irrational phobias, lose their toilet training, and often relive their trauma in play. Palestinian children whose homes have been destroyed by the Israelis have often been documented building play houses, or wetting themselves when they hear loud noises.

According to US statistics, about 7 percent to 8 percent of the general population will develop PTSD. These numbers go up significantly for veterans and rape victims, among whom PTSD has anywhere from a 10 percent to 30 percent chance of developing. Women war veterans experience PTSD far more severely than their male counterparts.

PTSD is clinically treated with calming medication and/or psychological counseling. Many people experiencing PTSD self-medicate with alcohol while the lucky ones find solace in supportive relationships.

The process of healing from PTSD requires going through a full grieving and healing process so that one can learn and grow from the negative life experience instead of letting it hold one back from truly living. Healing also involves learning how to set internal boundaries against past and present abusers in one’s life as well as learning to steer one’s mind away from bad thoughts. It may help to keep a journal of one’s feelings or to make a schedule where one records the time lost daily ruminating about painful past events or conversations.

It is important to understand that PTSD is not a sign of weakness or cowardice but actually points to a strongly developed conscience and higher than average emotional intelligence. The only way to overcome PTSD is to confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past while learning how to minimize stress and anxiety in your current life.

Karin Friedemann is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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