Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) causes an array of symptoms that plague sufferers in the wake of a traumatic event such as war, rape, natural disasters, serious accidents, abuse or assault. The body and brain remember the trauma and become unable to process the traumatic memories normally. As a result, PTSD sufferers often find themselves with a host of symptoms which generally fall into three categories of function — re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal. PTSD symptoms may persist until PTSD treatment help is sought, enabling many individuals to experience a lessening — if not a total recession of — psychological and physical issues associated with PTSD.
Re-experiencing Symptoms of PTSD
Certain symptoms that arise in PTSD involve the repeated experiencing of the traumatic event. Usually, memories are processed and stored as past events; however, in cases where trauma has been severe, the brain’s way of processing memory becomes interrupted. As a result, trauma exists below the surface of consciousness, flaring up when triggered by somatic or psychological cues. As the brain struggles to process trauma, the individual with PTSD may find they are constantly “reliving” the event. In fact, symptoms of re-experiencing in PTSD can actually serve to further traumatize the individual, as they psychologically undergo the experience of the traumatic event countless times. Certain targeted therapies offered by some residential PTSD treatment programs such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) have been shown highly effective in helping the brain process and resolve traumatic memories.
Symptoms of re-experiencing related to PTSD can include intrusive thoughts, waking flashbacks, chronic and recurrent nightmares, and feelings of intensive emotional distress. In some cases, sufferers of PTSD may also experience physical reactions when traumatic events are triggered. These can be internal, such as rapid heart rate, hyperventilation, dizziness, muscular tension and profuse sweating – or external, such as running, jumping, screaming, crying or shaking when the event resurfaces.
Avoidant Symptoms of PTSD
Naturally, the propensity among sufferers of PTSD to re-experience the traumatic event leads many patients to develop avoidance of cues that may trigger memories of the trauma itself. This results in avoidant symptoms of PTSD, many of which are aimed at the establishment of mental and physical safety. This may involve avoidance of sounds, sensations, objects, activities or people involved in the event, or even avoidance of any stimuli that can trigger emotional or thought-based reactions that are reminiscent of the trauma.
In some cases, the mind attempts to protect itself from knowledge of the trauma, leading to states of denial (where the individual believes the event never occurred) or memory “holes” where the most painful aspects of the traumatic event cannot be recalled. Some PTSD sufferers will also experience a lost of interest in previously enjoyable activities, emotional numbness or detachment and dissociation (evidenced by depersonalization and derealization). Some individuals will also become pessimistic about or lose interest in the future, feeling their time on earth is limited – or their control diminished – due to their near-death experience.
Hyperarousal Symptoms of PTSD
The third set of PTSD symptoms relates to hyperarousal of the body. Trauma acts upon our most primal features – collectively known as the body’s “fight, flight or freeze” reaction. In the wake of serious danger, the body adapts in order to survive a threat against it. Blood moves from the extremities to the vital organs, adrenaline levels raise in the body, senses become heightened to guard against threat and the body prepares for a fight for its life – or the chance to make a run for it. Unfortunately, while these responses are valuable in a crisis state, they cause a host of problems in daily living. PTSD sufferers may experience insomnia, difficulty staying asleep, angry outbursts and lack of focus. Additionally, PTSD patients may enter a state of hypervigilance as they constantly prepare against possible danger, leaving them on edge, easily startled, constantly interpreting surroundings for threat and perpetually afraid.