Wellbeing
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    Mental Health Awareness: A beginner's guide to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

    In this article, we'll delve into what exactly PTSD is, dispel common misconceptions surrounding it, outline the signs and symptoms to look out for, discuss the profound impact it can have on individuals, relationships, and daily life, and most importantly, explore avenues for seeking help and support if you or someone you know is experiencing PTSD. Understanding PTSD is crucial for both individuals directly affected and those supporting them.

    What is the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

    Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, is a mental health condition that is caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events (NHS, 2022). PTSD can affect anyone who has been through an event and can lead to a number of different symptoms that can significantly impact daily life.

    Video: What is PTSD?

    The UK Trauma Council have created a helpful video to outline what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is, the symptoms to look out for and where you can find help and support. Watch the video below:

    How prevalent is PTSD in the UK?

    PTSD is thought to affect a significant proportion of the UK at some point during their lives. According to figures from PTSD UK, 1 in 10 people in the UK will experience PTSD at some point during their lives. This is roughly 6.6 million people. The figures suggest that women aged between 16 and 24 are most likely to screen positive for PTSD. Around 1 in 13 children will suffer PTSD during their childhood. PTSD UK projects that there were 230,000 new PTSD referrals in England between 2020/21 and 2022/23 which suggests that PTSD is becoming more prevalent.

    Is PTSD the same as trauma?

    Whilst PTSD and trauma are closely linked, they are not the same thing. Trauma refers to a distressing or disturbing event(s) that can cause psychological harm. PTSD is a specific mental health condition that develops after a traumatic event. PTSD involves a set of symptoms that persist over time and interfere with day-to-day life. People with PTSD will experience recurrent and intrusive thoughts about the event they experienced. Unlike trauma, symptoms of PSTD can persist and reoccur (Van der Kolk, 2000).

    Is PTSD the same as anxiety?

    PTSD and anxiety are both mental health conditions that have their own set of causes and symptoms. The symptoms of PTSD may be similar to the symptoms of anxiety, however, there are often additional symptoms that people with PTSD suffer from that people with anxiety do not. According to NHS Inform, PTSD is a form of anxiety disorder with its own symptoms.

    Different Types of PTSD

    Are there different types of PTSD?

    Yes, there are different types of PTSD, each with its own unique characteristics and triggers. The mental health charity Mind outlines three different types of PTSD that may be diagnosed below:

    • Delayed-onset PTSD: Delayed-onset PTSD involves symptoms emerging more than six months after the individual has experienced trauma.

    • Complex PTSD: This is when an individual experiences trauma at a young age, or has endured prolonged traumatic experiences. This type of PTSD is usually more severe and is referred to as C-PTSD.

    • Birth trauma: This is PTSD that develops after a traumatic experience during childbirth. This typically occurs when the mother experiences distressing or life-threatening events during labour or delivery. 

    Misconceptions & Stigma

    What are common misconceptions of PTSD?

    The most common misconception around PTSD according to PTSD UK is that PTSD causes people to become violent or angry. This is a stereotype that is not true for all cases and can be distressing for people living with PTSD as it can cause a social stigma against them, limit their opportunities and deter them from getting the help they need. PTSD will not always trigger an angry or violent response in individuals, yet people believe that it will.

    Signs & Symptoms

    What are the physical symptoms of PTSD?

    One thing that people may not realise about PTSD is that there are a number of physical symptoms that people may experience. According to the Recovery Village, the most common physical symptoms are:

    • A heightened startle response

    • Hypervigilance

    • Irritability

    • Issues with sleep including insomnia and nightmares

    • Physical stress symptoms such as sweating

    A therapist consulting a former soldier patient who is suffering from PTSD

    What are the emotional symptoms of PTSD?

    PSTD can manifest several emotional symptoms that sufferers may experience. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the most common emotional symptoms of PTSD include: 

    • Distressing thoughts

    • Recurring memories

    • Negative thoughts about yourself or others

    • Blame directed towards yourself or the world

    • Reduced interest in activities

    • Feeling socially isolated

    • Difficulty feeling positive emotions such as happiness and satisfaction

    What are the cognitive signs of PTSD?

    PTSD can also cause issues with cognition that could lead to other conditions. The most common cognitive signs of PTSD include (Prieto et al, 2023):

    • Issues maintaining focus and attention

    • Difficulty processing and retaining information

    • Issues with processing speed of information

    • Issues with memory and learning new information

    • Problems with planning, problem-solving and decision-making

    Which biological factors can cause PTSD?

    Biological factors can significantly contribute to PTSD. It is not just a mental condition, it is a brain injury caused by exposure to trauma, according to PTSD UK. Brain scans on people with PTSD reveal changes in systems and brain regions including the hippocampus, amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex. These changes can lead to the symptoms of PTSD developing, specifically hypervigilance, memory issues and emotional numbness. 

    Which environmental influences can cause PTSD?

    Environmental influences play a significant role in the development of PTSD. Exposure to traumatic events, such as assaultive trauma (robbery, sexual assault etc) and non-assaultive trauma (motor vehicle accidents, natural disasters etc), are key factors. According to Psychiatry Online there is also a link between environmental factors and potential genetic influences on PTSD with certain genetic makeups being closely linked with the development of PTSD when someone is exposed to environmental factors.

    Which psychological factors can cause PTSD?

    A number of psychological factors can cause PTSD to occur (Song et al, 2018). Some of the most common psychological factors that can cause PTSD include:

    • The severity of the trauma you experience can psychologically impact you

    • The perception of the threat you feel you are experiencing can cause PTSD symptoms to worsen

    • Pre-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression

    • The effectiveness of coping mechanisms 

    • Personality traits such as avoiding emotions or situations

    • Previous trauma, known as trauma stacking or cumulative trauma

    • Cognitive processes such as negative thinking about yourself or the world

    The Impact of PTSD

    How can PTSD impact on personal life?

    PTSD can have a significant impact on someone’s personal life. According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD can also cause other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. The intrusive memories of PTSD can cause feelings of sadness, worry and hopelessness. PTSD can also increase the risk of substance abuse and addiction to drugs and alcohol, as well as eating disorders such as binge eating, bulimia and anorexia. Unfortunately, worsening mental health due to PTSD can also increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions. 

    How can PTSD impact on physical health?

    PTSD can have an impact on physical health. People with PTSD can cause people to experience physical symptoms including pain. PTSD is associated with increased reports of headaches, back pain, joint pain, and other types of chronic pain. The relationship between PTSD and chronic pain is complex, with pain often serving as a reminder of the traumatic event and intensifying PTSD symptoms (Eth, 2024).

    How can PTSD have a social impact?

    PTSD can also significantly impact someone’s social life. People with PTSD may withdraw from social interactions and isolate themselves from friends, family and community activities. Avoiding social situations can come from wanting or feeling the need to avoid triggers of traumatic events, as well as feelings of shame, guilt and inadequacy (Tull, 2020). This can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation and disconnection in PTSD sufferers. 

    Seeking Help

    When should you seek help for PTSD?

    You should seek help for PTSD if you've been experiencing symptoms for more than four weeks or if your symptoms are severe. You can start by consulting your GP or referring yourself to a talking therapy service for assessment. Mental health specialists such as psychological therapists, psychologists, community psychiatric nurses, or psychiatrists can provide tailored treatment to address your individual needs (NHS, 2022).

    A GP speaking to a patient

    Which professional services are available for PTSD?

    Several professional services are available for people who are struggling with PTSD. The charity PTSD UK has a page dedicated to sources of help for people struggling with PTSD, as well as providing information and advice themselves. Some sources of help with PTSD include:

    • Combat Stress: A UK based mental health charity providing help to service men and women with PTSD

    • Rape Crisis: Offers specialist support for survivors of sexual violence

    • Cruse: Provides support to people who have experienced the death of a loved one

    • PTSD Resolution: Offers free confidential therapy for service men and women as well as their families

    • The Survivors Trust: Offers support to survivors of rape, sexual abuse and childhood sexual abuse

    • Victim Support: Provides support to victims of crime

    Can therapy and medication help?

    Yes, therapy and medication can be effective treatments for PTSD. Therapies such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) are commonly used to help treat PTSD. Medications may also be used to PTSD, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, known as SSRIs. These medications can be used to help reduce anxiety, depression and intrusive thoughts (NHS, 2022). Combining therapy and medication can provide comprehensive treatment for PTSD, addressing both the psychological and physiological aspects of the disorder. 

    Can support groups and community resources help with PTSD?

    Yes, support groups and community resources can play a valuable role in helping individuals cope with PTSD, according to the mental health charity Mind.  Support groups provide opportunities for individuals with PTSD to connect with others who have had similar experiences. Being part of a support group can help individuals feel validated in their experiences and emotions. Participating in a support group can also help reduce the stigma associated with PTSD by providing a safe space for open discussions and education about the condition.

    Self-Help Strategies for PTSD

    Which lifestyle changes can help with PTSD?

    Making certain lifestyle changes can positively impact your well-being and help you cope with PTSD. Eating a healthy, balanced diet that involves eating regular, nutritious meals and staying hydrated can help to regulate your mood and energy levels. As well as this, getting plenty of exercise can also help improve your mood. The mental health charity Mind also suggest spending time in nature and limiting intake of substances such as alcohol and drugs.

    Can mindfulness and relaxation help with PTSD?

    Yes, mindfulness and relaxation techniques can be beneficial for individuals coping with PTSD, according to PTSD UK. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help to reduce stress levels, increase awareness about yourself and your surroundings and also quieten intrusive thoughts. These techniques can also improve the way that you regulate your emotions by increasing tolerance for distress and promoting a sense of self-awareness and self-compassion.

    Can building a strong support network help with PTSD?

    Yes, building a strong support network can be immensely helpful for individuals coping with PTSD (Price et al, 2018). Having supportive friends, family members, or peers who understand your experiences and provide empathy, validation, and encouragement can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness commonly experienced with PTSD. It's important for people with PTSD to actively create and nurture relationships in their lives to fall back on if they ever need to.

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