Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a medical diagnosis given to a person who experiencces enduring stress after a traumatic or life-threatening event. Because of its complex nature, a person may experience post-traumatic stress well and truly before a formal diagnosis is given.
Typical examples of traumatic or life-threatening events can include:
- child sexual, physical, emotional or psychological abuse
- sexual or physical assault
- car accidents
- a natural disaster, such as fire, hurricane, flood or earthquake, and
- domestic violence.
A person can also develop post-traumatic stress as a result of witnessing any of the above events. This is known as vicarious trauma.
What is enduring distress?
When a person continues to experience distress after a traumatic event, post-traumatic stress can develop. Enduring distress can take many forms, including:
- being on edge or irritable
- a feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope
- numbing or zoning out, including with drugs, alcohol, sex, or food
- difficulty identifying emotions, including feelings of not 'inhabiting your body'
- difficulty reading other people's emotions, including avoiding social contact entirely, and
- avoiding underlying feelings by keeping busy through work or other tasks.
A new way of looking at trauma
Increasingly, mental health consumers, health advocates, trauma researchers, and many practising health professionals are considering a person's experience of an event, rather than the event itself as the primary factor for determining whether a person has developed post-traumatic stress.
In this context, virtually any event can be perceived as traumatic if it:
- causes a person harm
- elicits a fear or stress response
- is experiences by a person as overwhelming, and
- makes a person feel powerless or helpless.
Viewed in this light, a person can experience 'normal' events such as moving home, changing schools, ending a relationship, or starting a new job as traumatic if it causes the distress, was overwhelming, or it made them feel powerless.
Treatment: What seems to work, and why
Ongoing research into the effects of trauma on the brain and body has led to the development of trauma-informed therapies and practice. Below is a short list of some recent evidence-based therapies that are showing promise for people with experiencing post-traumatic stress.
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a relatively new treatment used primarily for post-traumatic stress. The client is asked to remember the traumatic event and to focus on the thoughts and emotions connected to it. When the client is focused, the therapist moves his/her finger horizontally in front of the client's face. The client is asked to follow the movement of the therapist's finger with their eyes, allowing both sides of the brain to become active in a process known as bilateral stimulation. It is thought that the stimulation of the brain and the simultaneous focusing of the traumatic event allow the brain to process the event. With repeated sessions of EMDR the client becomes more able to talk about and remember the event without the negative feelings previously associated with it. Often, many clients report feeling less overwhelmed or less 'stuck' by the feelings previously associated with it. Often, many clients report feeling less overwhelmed or less 'stuck' by the feelings associated with the traumatic memory. Despite its effectiveness, more research is needed to fully understand precisely how EMDR alleviates traumatic symptoms so efficiently.
Neurofeedback, also known as biofeedback or bioneurofeedback, uses real-time displays of the brain's electrical activity to promote long-term emotional regulation and to improve overall brain function. Sensors are placed on the participant's head and ears to amplify the brain's electrical activity, which is then presented on a screen for the participant to see. Similar to a video game, the participant is encouraged to increase the brainwaves associated with focus and attention, and to reduce the brainwaves associated with impulsivity, inattention and distress, via signalled beeps, flashing lights and point scoring. As a result, the participant learns to activate the parts of the brain typically dormant or adversely affected during the experience of traumatic stress.
Somatic Experiencing (SE)
SE is a mindfulness-based, therapist-led approach to trauma that emphasises a person's experience or 'felt sense' of the physical sensations associated with traumatic stress. SE's creator, Dr Peter Levine, argues that traumatic stress is energy that becomes stuck in the body's nervous system. An SE therapist helps the client to explore their traumatic feelings in a safe, contained space, which allows the client to release the traumatic energy and 'complete' the feelings of distress activated during the initial trauma.
Mutual Self-Help Support Groups
Support groups have been shown to benefit people from all walks of life, not just those with an experience of traumatic stress. Support groups can be a safe, supportive and non-judgmental space to make friends, get current, break patterns of isolation, and to develop collective problem-solving skills. A mutual self-help support group has the added benefit of being facilitated by a person with the same interests or lived experiences as those of its members. This interest, or lived experience, is usually the reason for the group's formation.
For information on our Post Traumatic Stress Support Group click here
For information on our Women's Childhood Trauma Support Group click here
Helpful PTSD links:
Trauma Center - A US based website with useful resources, initiatives, training and education information on trauma and post-traumatic stress, founded by trauma specialist Bessel Van Der Kolk
Indigo Daya - Website of Indigo Daya, trauma survivor, mental health consumer, advocate and senior policy officer for the Mental Health and Drugs division of DHHS.
Heal for Life - Resources and programs for people who have experienced childhood trauma and abuse.
Blue Knot Foundation - SUpporting adults survivors to recovery.