Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) emerges in the aftermath of experiencing or witnessing a deeply distressing or traumatic event. But what exactly qualifies as a "trauma," and how does it manifest in terms of symptoms?
At its core, trauma refers to the exposure to a life-threatening injury or event that overwhelms one’s ability to cope. Commonly experienced traumas include car accidents, mass shootings, physical or sexual assault, and intimate partner violence (IPV).
However, the event doesn’t have to happen directly to you for it to be distressing — in fact, trauma reactions can also occur when a person witnesses or learns about a life-threatening event. Examples may include witnessing violence between parents or having a loved one suddenly pass away. In addition, you don’t need to experience physical harm to suffer a trauma. Verbal abuse, such as experiencing credible threats against one’s life, are included in trauma’s definition. Such events can inflict emotional scars and profoundly alter the way one perceives the world and themselves.
Symptoms of PTSD can be grouped into four primary categories:
One of the hallmarks of PTSD is the recurring, involuntary reliving of the traumatic event. This can manifest as:
Individuals with PTSD might sidestep situations, places, or people reminiscent of the trauma. This includes:
A profound shift in thought patterns and mood is common among trauma survivors. Symptoms can involve:
Hyperarousal is an ever-present state of heightened alertness for someone with PTSD, because their fight-flight-freeze response is constantly activated. Symptoms include:
PTSD’s effects are felt both physically and emotionally. In an effort to numb and avoid the distressing consequences of trauma, survivors may also engage in a number of unhealthy behaviors. Common related issues include:
Furthermore, PTSD often exacerbates existing physical conditions by magnifying their intensity and overall impact on one's well-being. Studies have even shown a strong association between trauma and chronic pain, migraines, and GI issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The development of PTSD after a trauma can vary based on the nature of the traumatic event, individual personalities, and subsequent support (or lack thereof). It's also noteworthy that symptoms might surface long after the traumatic incident — sometimes remaining dormant for years before being activated by a specific event or memory.
If you or someone you know is showing signs of PTSD, seek professional help. Early intervention can decrease the severity of symptoms and hasten the journey to recovery. By raising awareness about PTSD's effects, we can empower survivors to rise above their trauma rather than being defined by it.
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