How to Recognize and Treat PTSD
Post traumatic stress disorder is a well known condition that many first responders and members of the military battle. However, PTSD can also significantly impact those who have suffered other traumas, too, including abuse, car accidents, rape, death of a loved one, or other life-threatening experiences.
It should also be noted that PTSD can result from witnessing a trauma, learning of a trauma, or repeated exposure to small traumas. Recognizing the symptoms of PTSD and seeking treatment are important in maintaining a healthy life.
Unlike most day-to-day events that our brain quickly processes, the memory of a traumatic event may get stuck in our limbic system. It never reaches the frontal cortex of our brain that would typically allow us to verbalize the experience and associated emotions. When stuck in the limbic systems, the memory is vulnerable to triggers such as sights, sounds, and smells, that create intense anxiety, anger, sadness, or panic, as if a person is reliving the memory in the present moment. It is such a horrific feeling that many people who live with PTSD sometimes live with daily fear of when their traumatic memory will be triggered.
As a result of many successful outcomes and evidence-based research, EMDR is becoming a popular treatment for PTSD. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and works much like how REM (rapid-eye movement) helps heal the brain during sleep.
A specialized trained therapist facilitates eye movement back and forth using a variety of tools such a light bar while guiding a patient to recall a traumatic memory. This process essentially unlocks the memory from the limbic system and allows it to be processed utilizing other parts of the brain. If you have ever had a moment where you know logically your emotional reaction is irrational, but you just can’t seem to turn it off, the EMDR process helps connect the logic with emotion. Following a successful EMDR treatment, you will recall how you felt at the time of the trauma, but you won’t feel it as though it is happening in the moment.
A benefit of EMDR is that it is a relatively fast form of therapy. While it is impossible to say exactly how many sessions are required for everyone, I have had patients experience healing in as short as one or two sessions. Patients also appreciate that it does not require much verbalizing of the details of the trauma or dwelling on the experience.
If you wish to seek out EMDR treatment, you will need a therapist who is trained in this specific treatment. EMDR is not appropriate for everyone, including those with some health conditions. You will need to discuss with your therapist if this option fits your individualized needs. You also may find more information at emdria.org.
Symptoms associated with reliving the traumatic event:
- Bad dreams or distressing memories about the event
- Behaving or feeling as if the event were actually happening all over again (flashbacks)
- Dissociative reactions or loss of awareness of present surroundings
- Experiencing intense emotions when reminded of the event
- Having intense physical sensations when reminded of the event (heart pounds or misses a beat, sweating, difficulty breathing, feeling faint, feeling a loss of control)
Symptoms related to avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event:
- Avoiding thoughts, conversations, or feelings about the event
- Avoiding people, activities, or places associated with the event
Symptoms related to negative changes in thought or mood:
- Having difficulty remembering an important part of the original trauma
- Feeling numb or detached from things
- Lack of interest in social activities
- Inability to experience positive moods
- Pessimism about the future
Arousal and reactivity symptoms:
- Sleeping Difficulties including trouble falling or staying asleep
- Irritability and outbursts of anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling easily startled
- Excess Awareness (hypervigilance)
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