PTSD is Not Just for Veterans; It’s A Trauma Disorder

by Marie Miguel

a photo of a man, on a train, wiping tears from his eyes
Sadness. Source: Matthias Ripp, Creative Commons

Some people believe that PTSD is only a mental health condition that affects those who have come back from war, but this isn’t the case. People who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder aren’t just veterans. Individuals with PTSD have experienced severe trauma. It’s not only people that come back from combat, but that’s how many of us associate the disorder. PTSD can happen to anybody who experiences trauma such as a sexual assault, a natural disaster, or many things that would prompt someone to have a traumatic reaction, so let’s stop talking about PTSD as though it’s something that only war veterans experience. Anyone who has been through a traumatic experience can develop PTSD. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), PTSD affects 3.5% of the U.S. adult population. That works out to eight million American people living with the condition. Approximately 37% of people diagnosed with PTSD display serious symptoms. Women have higher rates than men. Later in this article, we’ll discuss the gender divide.

What is Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome?

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome happens after a person experiences trauma, and it’s something that sticks with a person. Symptoms can include flashbacks, night sweats, insomnia, panic attacks, and isolating from friends and family. We need to understand that people with PTSD aren’t dramatic; they’re traumatized. When you experience trauma first-hand it changes your brain. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health, Several areas of the brain are involved when a person experiences PTSD. A stress response includes the amygdala, hippocampus, as well as the prefrontal cortex. PTSD and trauma can cause lasting changes in those areas of the brain.

What causes PTSD?

The cause of PTSD is that a person experiences trauma and never adequately deals with the issues because it sticks with them. People think that PTSD is caused by being in combat because combat can be a traumatic experience, especially if you see someone die in front of you. The cause of PTSD is when an individual has difficulty adjusting after a traumatic event; their brain changes and the memory of the traumatic event gets stuck in their brain. These intrusive memories make it difficult for an individual to function. The root cause of PTSD is a traumatic event, but the symptoms are what overwhelm people to the point where it’s diagnosable. People with PTSD often have recurring distressing and upsetting memories of the trauma, and when you continually have upsetting memories and can’t stop them, it makes you want to shut down, which is a problem that many people face when living with PTSD, and it can seriously impact your relationships.

Causes of PTSD

  • A stressful experience
  • Trauma
  • Mental Illness
  • Predisposition to mental illness or family history of mental illness

Risk factors for PTSD:

  • Long lasting trauma
  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Other childhood trauma
  • A job where you’re exposed to trauma such as a military position
  • If you don’t have a sound support system
  • Seeing someone get hurt
  • A history of substance abuse

Types of trauma

When we think of PTSD, we might think of combat, but it’s not just that. Anyone who has experienced trauma is at risk of developing PTSD. Whether you witnessed a violent act or you were physically attacked yourself, you’re at risk for PTSD. In addition to combat, types of trauma that can induce PTSD include but aren’t limited to:

  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Other childhood trauma
  • Sexual assault or violence
  • Physical assault
  • Natural disaster
  • Being attacked with a weapon

Symptoms of PTSD

Symptoms of PTSD can range from mood symptoms to physical symptoms. These symptoms can include but aren’t limited to nightmares, irritability, being easily startled or frightened, trouble sleeping or concentrating, or even feeling completely emotionally numb. These symptoms occur after a traumatic event and are only some of the possible signs that an individual could experience. Everyone reacts to trauma differently. And it’s understandable that someone may shut down, lash out, or break down crying. These are all responses that could happen.

How intense are your symptoms?

Depending on the person, the intensity and type of PTSD symptoms will differ. If you have suicidal thoughts or ideation, it’s incredibly crucial to reach out to a friend, loved one, or to contact the national suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK in the United States.) It’s essential that you talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing difficulty functioning.

Complications of PTSD

PTSD can impair someone’s function to the point where they’re unable to engage in normal life activities. Someone might develop substance abuse issues, an eating disorder, or other comorbid mental health conditions. PTSD can be debilitating. It can lead people into a state where they can’t work. It can make it so that they’re unable to attend social functions, and it can severely impact a person’s life. If you’re diagnosed with PTSD, you need to have the following symptoms:

One avoidance symptom – Avoidance is where you’ll stay away from things that remind you of the trauma. Avoidance symptoms include avoiding places and situations that remind you of the trauma, and avoiding thinking about upsetting thoughts connected to the event

At least two arousal symptoms– Arousal symptoms of PTSD make a person extremely anxious. Arousal symptoms include:

  • Getting startled easily
  • Feeling tense
  • Having problems sleeping
  • Angry outbursts

At least two cognition/mood symptoms – Cognitive symptoms of PTSD can rob people of things they once enjoyed. Cognitive symptoms include difficulty remembering the trauma, distorted emotions including guilt, and loss of interest things you once enjoyed

One re-experiencing symptom – Re-experiencing a key marker of PTSD, and it sounds exactly like what it is; re-experiencing. Re-experiencing symptoms include flashbacks or reliving the trauma, nightmares, or scary thoughts.

a lone little boy sitting on a platform
Source: John Smith, Creative Commons

Children vs. Adults With PTSD

Children can have different responses to trauma in comparison to adults. They might wet the bed or have selective mutism, they might start acting out during play time, or they might begin experiencing separation anxiety. According to the National PTSD center, seven or eight out of every 100 people experience PTSD at some point during their life. Not every person who has PTSD has been through a dangerous incident; some people experience it after a loved one has suffered harm.

According to The U.S Department of Veteran Affairs Studies, approximately 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys experience significant trauma. Of the children and teens that experience trauma, 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys go on to develop Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

We can see that females seem to develop PTSD more than men do. What is the reason for this? Many women are survivors are sexual assault, try to speak up and aren’t believed. According to the National Sexual Assault Resource Center, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at any given point during their lives. Yet, we as a society do not believe survivors as we should. We need to start believing women when they come forward. When we do they can get treated for what happened to them appropriately.

Why do some people get PTSD and others don’t?

You may be wondering why some people develop PTSD while others do not. Part of it has to do with having the risk factors listed above, but there’s nothing wrong with you if you have PTSD and someone else in the same situation did not. There are other disorders that can go along with PTSD. An individual with PTSD can have additional mental health conditions. They may also struggle with suicidal ideation and may attempt to take their life. Here are some mental health conditions that people with PTSD also manage:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • OCD
  • Depression
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Substance Abuse

How to prevent PTSD

PTSD isn’t necessarily preventable because you can’t control when trauma happens, but you can deal with the trauma after it happens. After experiencing a traumatic event, it’s vital to seek mental health treatment in the form of therapy and, if you need to, a psychiatrist. You can reach out to people in your network and find someone to treat your symptoms. Whether you see someone online or in your local area, PTSD is treatable and even preventable if you address trauma right away. If you develop PTSD, it’s okay, and there’s no need to feel shame. It’s a treatable mental illness, and you’re not alone. Many people live with PTSD, and with support, you will get through this. It starts with getting help from a mental health professional, whether that’s working with someone in your local area or finding the help of an online counselor, like one at BetterHelp, you can find a treatment plan and get the help that you need to health from PTSD. You’re not alone, and remember that millions of Americans live with the condition. By going to therapy, you’re doing something incredibly brave, which is taking charge of your mental health. You will get better, but it’s going to take time. Be patient with yourself. Healing from trauma can be difficult, but it’s worth it.

 

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

The Impact of Child Abuse

A sad boy sitting outside and staring into the camera.
Sad. Source: tamckile, Creative Commons

Childhood is a time in life that should be filled with joy and imagination, and free of fear and any serious responsibility.  However, for many people, this not their reality, as abuse and trauma have warped their experience of it.  In 2014, about 702,000 children were found to be victims of some form of abuse in the United States – this number does not take into account situations of abuse that went unreported.  It is estimated that 1,580 children died “as a result of abuse and neglect” in that same year, though it is possible that this number is actually much higher due to “undercounting of child fatalities by state agencies.”  The general impact and potential trauma caused by abuse can have a significant harmful influence throughout childhood development and adulthood.

What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse is “when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm, or risk of serious harm to a child.”  This includes many different forms of abuse, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect:

  • Physical abuse is “when a parent or caregiver causes any non-accidental physical injury to a child.”
  • Emotional abuse, which is recognized less often, is “when a parent or caregiver harms a child’s mental and social development or causes severe emotional harm,” and can include (but is not limited to) isolating a child, terrorizing, ignoring, and humiliating them.
  • Sexual abuse is “when an adult uses a child for sexual purposes or involves a child in sexual acts,” but it does not have to involve physical contact with a child. In addition to “contact abuse,” it can also include inappropriate sexual language, “making a child view or show sex organs,” and forcing a child to watch a sexual act.
  • Neglect is “when a parent or caregiver does not give the care, supervision, affection, and support needed for a child’s health, safety, and well-being,” and it occurs when an adult fails to meet even the most basic requirements for taking care of a child that they are responsible for. Neglect can physical, emotional, medical, or educational.
    • Physical neglect relates to reception of “care and supervision.”
    • Emotional neglect relates to reception of “affection and attention.”
    • Medical neglect relates to “treatment for injuries and illnesses.”
    • Educational neglect relates to a child’s “access to opportunities for academic success.”

Effects of Child Abuse

Experiencing abuse as a child can have serious, long-term effects on an individual.  Those who have experienced child abuse are at an increased risk for intimate partner violence, substance abuse issues, and mental illnesses.  Experiences of abuse also lead to children having an increased risk of exhibiting criminal behavior.  In the United States, “14% of all men in prison and 36% of women in prison” experienced child abuse.  Children who are survivors of child abuse are about “9 times more likely to become involved in criminal activity” than those who are not.  Many survivors must deal with intense negative effects of their trauma for the rest of their lives.

Trauma and Child Abuse

Trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event, like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”  When considering the issue of trauma, people often think of veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Both PTSD and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) are common in survivors of child abuse, but they differ in exactly what circumstances causes them.  PTSD results from a specific event, while CPTSD results from repetitive experiences of trauma.  In terms of child abuse, PTSD is caused by a specific incident of abuse, while CPTSD is caused by experiencing numerous incidences of abuse over a period of time.

The three main categories of PTSD symptoms are “re-experiencing trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event,” “emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma,” and “increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated or angered.”  In addition to the symptoms of PTSD, people with CPTSD also experience problems with forming and maintaining relationships, negative views of themselves, and problems with regulating their emotions.  These symptoms negatively affect the ability of individuals with PTSD and CPTSD, including child abuse survivors, to live their lives in normal, healthy ways.

Treatments for coping with PTSD and CPTSD include individual and group therapy, medications (such as antidepressants) that help with some symptoms, and the establishment of a reliable support system.  Dealing with trauma is a life-long process.  Healing is possible for survivors of child abuse, but the impacts of their experiences will never fully disappear.

A sad boy sitting next to a dog on a couch.
Nathaniel. Source: Tony Alter, Creative Commons

The Cyclical Nature of Child Abuse

The presence of abuse can be seen as a cycle with the potential to perpetuate itself throughout the generations of a family.  According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, around one in three of all survivors of child abuse will “subject their children to maltreatment”.  This is because many survivors who become parents believe that the way they were treated as a child is the correct way to parent.  In other cases, parents believe that if they simply treat their children better than their parents treated them, then they are not being abusive.  This way of thinking is incorrect, because abuse is abuse, even if one example of abuse is not as overtly severe as another.  By spreading information and reporting incidences of child abuse we can help to interrupt the cycle.

Child Abuse is a Human Rights Issue

There are numerous ways in which child abuse can be clearly seen as a violation of human rights.  Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and Article 25 states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”  How can someone utilize these rights while living in fear (whether it be as an adult or as a child)?

The Convention on the Rights of the Child also deals with child abuse as a violation of human rights.  Article 19 calls for States Parties to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation…”  Article 24 states that children have the right to “the highest attainable standard of health,” which is a right that cannot be fully enjoyed in an abusive situation.  Article 27 describes the right “to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development,” and abuse is a known hindrance to childhood development.  Article 34 relates specifically to sexual abuse, stating that States Parties should do everything they can to “protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”

It is important that we remember that children are limited in what they can do to help themselves in any given situation.  It is the responsibility of the adults around them to protect and nurture them.  Adults should be attentive toward the well-being of the children they contact.  Adults need to be able to recognize and report abusive situations when they witness them and/or are aware of them.

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