As the world becomes more trauma-informed, it’s common to hear about people seeking treatment for trauma or accessing support to help them cope. The term “trauma,” may be mentioned often, but the experience of trauma in and of itself does not mean that a person has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). So, how can you determine if you actually have PTSD and when therapy for PTSD is appropriate? Ultimately, you must see a mental health professional for a diagnosis, but understanding the signs and symptoms of PTSD can help you decide when to seek treatment.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a disorder included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This is a diagnostic tool utilized by mental health professionals. PTSD is diagnosed when a person directly experiences a traumatic event or learns of such an event happening to others, by witnessing it or hearing about the event.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must meet the following criteria:
- Experiencing a traumatic event, such as actual or threatened death of you or a loved one, a severe injury, or sexual violence, whether directly or by observing such an event happen to someone else
- Hearing about traumatic events happening to others, or repeatedly experiencing traumatic events happening to others, such as through work as a police officer or paramedic
- Demonstrating symptoms of intrusion, which include:
- Unwanted memories of the traumatic event
- Nightmares pertaining to the event
- Flashbacks of the event, which at times can cause a person to entirely dissociate from their surroundings
- Significant distress when exposed to reminders of the event
- Physiological reactions, such as racing heart and sweaty palms, when exposed to reminders of the event
- Showing avoidance symptoms, such as repressing upsetting thoughts or memories about the event, or avoiding visual reminders of the event, such as people or objects involved in it
- Experiencing negative thoughts pertaining to the event, which can manifest as:
- Inability to remember parts of the event
- Developing negative beliefs about oneself or the world, such as believing that the self or the entire world is flawed
- Inappropriately blaming oneself or someone else for the event
- Ongoing negative emotions, such as guilt, fear, shame, over anger
- Losing interest in regular activities
- Detaching from other people
- Being unable to express pleasant emotions like joy
- Evidence of increased arousal or reactivity, such as by:
- Having outbursts of anger or irritability, which can include verbal or physical attacks against others
- Reckless or dangerous behavior
- Being easily startled
- Having problems with concentration
- Suffering from sleep disturbances, such as experiencing restless sleep or having a hard time falling asleep
Finally, to be diagnosed, a person must not only show the diagnostic symptoms above, but they must also experience symptoms for over a month. To be formally diagnosed with PTSD, you must see a mental health professional, such as a social worker, psychologist, or clinical counselor. If you experience a traumatic event, followed by avoidance and intrusion symptoms, negative thoughts, and increased arousal, you may have PTSD. A mental health clinician can conduct an assessment, provide a diagnosis, and formulate an appropriate treatment plan.
Prevalence of PTSD
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Some people may find that they are able to use coping skills and social support to manage their response to the event. Others may have some symptoms of distress, without meeting criteria for PTSD. Research shows that 61% to 80% of people experience a traumatic event during their lifetimes, but only 5% to 10% of that population develop PTSD.
What can be concluded from this is that it is possible to have experienced trauma, without developing PTSD in response. While the experience of trauma can be distressing, it’s important not to automatically assume that someone who has lived through a traumatic event has a disorder. For those who do develop PTSD, or who show symptoms of distress after a traumatic event, professional treatment is warranted.
Treatment for PTSD
PTSD is typically treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Several types of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), cognitive processing therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) are effective for managing PTSD symptoms. The condition may also be treated with antidepressant medications, including SSRI drugs like sertraline and paroxetine.
For those in New Jersey, Bridge to Balance offers PTSD therapy services, including treatment of PTSD and trauma-related symptoms. We have offices in Voorhees, Hamilton, and Piscataway. Visit our website today to learn more.