Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Some Facts

Psychological stress was first reported in the nineteen-hundreds by an Egyptian physician who described a hysterical reaction to trauma. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has, confusingly been given many labels over the years. Previously known as ‘shell shock’ during WWI, ‘War Neurosis’ during WWII and ‘Combat Stress Reaction’ during the Vietnam War it wasn’t until the late nineteen-eighties that its present term was introduced.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following any event that makes you fear for your safety. Any event (or series of events) that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that leave you emotionally shattered can trigger PTSD. This may happen especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable. Characteristics of a traumatic event are defined by its capacity to provoke fear, helplessness or horror as a response to the threat of injury or death and can affect those who have personally witnessed a traumatic event, are repeatedly exposed to graphic details of trauma (such as a paramedic) or those who are there to care for those effected by trauma as well as those who have experienced trauma.

During exposure to trauma you are in an intensively fearful situation during which your mind suspends normal operations in order to cope as best it can. This could trigger several different behaviours: you might freeze on the spot, fight or run away (otherwise known as flight). Until the danger passes you don’t produce a memory for the traumatic event in the normal way and unfortunately, when the memory is eventually presented for filing it can cause a lot of distress which can manifest itself in the form of nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive unwanted memories called re-experiences.

Re-experiences or flashbacks is the mind attempting to file away the distressing memory. They are unpleasant and frightening and repeatedly expose you to the original trauma.   Imagine your memory is like a filing cabinet but you’ve been too busy to complete your filing so you have piled up your paperwork in the bottom drawer day after day, until the drawer bulges. Now that you attempt to file all the paperwork (or in this case the memories) the task has become so overwhelming it makes you anxious: there are no reference numbers and you can’t read the documents. You have no idea where to file them, or who to turn to for help. Each time your mind attempts to file the documents your state of awareness changes to the point that those around you begin to notice. Your emotions begin to suffer and symptoms begin to present themselves in ways that can show both physically and emotionally. Physical symptoms are a shortness of breath, tight muscles, sweating and a racing heart; whereas emotional symptoms are when you feel on edge, hypervigilance or a feeling of panic.

Hyperarousal often increases emotional response although it’s possible that PTSD sufferers also feel emotionally numb causing trouble in communication about their feelings. In turn this can cause more anxiety and irritability. Symptoms of PTSD become unmanageable and uncomfortable to the point that avoidance linked to the original trauma begins to occur, affecting day to day life drastically.