May is Mental Health Awareness Month
Working in the mental health field for over 20 years has given me a front-row seat to many of the struggles those living with a mental health diagnosis endure. Whether clinically diagnosed or not, many contend with societal stigma, problems locating culturally competent providers, or finding affordable services. Often, I’d find myself listening to stories that could only be described as traumatic; leading to a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD.
What is PTSD?
The PTSD diagnosis is given to those who’ve endured a life-changing traumatic event. Let’s imagine there is a horrible car accident. For that one event there could be four types of individuals subjected to trauma: the witness, the victim, first responders, and later the therapists who may experience vicarious trauma due to assisting any of the three previously mentioned.
Depending on the individual, PTSD symptoms can be experienced as hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, avoidance of similarities to the trauma, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or an increase in aggression… just to name a few. These often lead to an increase in anxiety, sleep deprivation, use of or an increase in substance use, depression, poor work or school performance, health problems, and an inability to nurture relationships.
In the late 1990’s I was a therapist at a domestic violence shelter. Most of the women there told similar stories of being neglected as children prior to being in abusive relationships as adults. Some spoke of having problematic relationships with friends and co-workers. There were stories of traumatic impact of sexism, ageism and racism as well. Yes a diagnosis of PTSD would certainly fit, yet it would be years before there would be a term to adequately describe the issue: complex trauma.
Complex trauma involves when an individual has suffered multiple traumas over a period of time… even a lifetime. Going back to our car accident scenario; imagine the person witnessing the accident is also a sexual assault victim and recently suffered the sudden loss of a partner or child; we would say this person is dealing with complex trauma. Meaning he/she may have multiple triggers and resulting symptoms. Can you imagine the difficulty that person would have maintaining employment or relationships?
How we respond to daily situations and circumstances are preempted by our previous experiences. This is especially true when dealing with a past trauma. The resulting reactions are called trauma responses. Trauma responses can look like jumping to conclusions, engaging in self-sabotage, difficulty laughing at oneself, using sarcasm, and being aggressive. Trauma responses are sometimes a combination of PSTD symptoms and emotional walls erected to guard against further trauma. If left untreated or mismanaged, the outcome could be a history of damaged relationships.
What to Do:
If you or someone you know is experiencing PTSD symptoms, it is best to get help as soon as possible. The longer the symptoms remain untreated, the more difficult it is to recover and heal emotionally. While it is natural to want to avoid painful memories, keep in mind, you have already lived through the traumatic event. Be encouraged as you live through the healing as well.
There are many effective treatments for PTSD symptoms that include: medication, trauma-informed talk therapy, prayer with a trained counselor or minister, a support group, medicinal herbs and essential oils, and massage. It may be helpful to include other family members in therapy as well. Loved ones may have different ways of dealing with trauma and need to know the best way to support you.
If you are the loved one of someone who is experiencing PTSD symptoms, I recommend you get support too. Helping a trauma victim can be emotionally draining and physically taxing. Both the victim and their advocates need to know what the triggers are and the resulting symptoms. Providers familiar with trauma-informed care are the best choice to assist both victim and family members determine the appropriate course of treatment.