Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Symptoms and Treatment

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) treatment looks a bit different for everybody who undergoes it. Why? Because PTSD is something that is experienced differently by individuals. While there are certainly common symptoms and methods for treating them, there is no universal approach for learning how to manage them. In fact, there are a handful of ways that this condition can be treated, and these methods are geared toward the individual and their unique experiences, circumstances, and ways of thinking and feeling.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

PTSD is a condition that can occur as a result of experiencing any kind of trauma. Some of the most common trauma that is known to trigger its symptoms include death, sexual or non-sexual violence (whether it is threatened or actually occurs), and enduring a physical injury. Just one event can trigger symptoms, but certainly, experiencing multiple traumatic events can do so as well. It was originally referred to as “combat fatigue” and “shell shock” after World War II, when soldiers returned home only to experience nightmares, flashbacks, and intense emotions when something in their environment triggered them.

These and psycho-emotional results can impact how a person goes about their everyday life. Most people with this condition have specific stimuli that trigger their symptoms. For example, a war veteran might be triggered by the sound of fireworks.

Per the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), this condition can develop at any age. Of course, the more intense or longer a traumatic event lasts, the stronger the chances are that it will result in the person experiencing symptoms.

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Symptoms of this disorder can vary from person to person since each case is based on a unique trauma (or series of traumas). However, the most common manifestations of symptoms include:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Distorted self-perceptions and perceptions of others
  • Avoiding anything that is reminiscent of the trauma that occurred
  • Feeling angry, irritable, or engaging in reckless behavior

For many people, symptoms that occur in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event taper off over time. However, for those with post-traumatic stress, symptoms can last months or even years. In some cases, people do not develop symptoms until months or years have gone by, but the impact can still be deeply profound and disruptive of everyday life.

PTSD and Addiction

There is a biological explanation for why addiction is so common for those with post-traumatic stress. When post-traumatic stress symptoms are triggered, the “fight or flight” survival mechanism we all have gets activated by the adrenal glands, which produce the primary stress hormone called cortisol. Those with post-traumatic stress experience excessive cortisol levels, which, in turn, cause a massive array of physiological and psychological complications (ranging from heightened blood pressure to memory impairment).

Alcohol and other addictive substances are often used as a way to distract the brain from focusing on the stress triggers. Unfortunately, this doesn’t treat post-traumatic stress and can even exacerbate its severity, which is why it is crucial to consider clinical modes of treatment with a counselor.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Treatment

Post-traumatic stress is a serious condition, but it is one that has seen a lot of success in terms of treatment. Forms of PTSD treatment can vary, but there are about half a dozen of them that are most commonly used:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
  • Stress Inoculation Training
  • Medications

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the goal is to get the client to change their disruptive thought patterns. This usually involves opening up and talking about the traumatic event(s) and the feelings behind them. Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is a more condensed, writing-based version of CBT that encourages clients to write in-depth about how they experience thoughts and emotions related to their post-traumatic stress.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy is generally reserved for those who are actively avoiding stimuli that trigger their symptoms. It typically takes about fifteen 90-minute sessions in which counselors first coach relaxation techniques (like deep breathing) before systematically exposing clients to each of their reported triggers. Treatment isn’t considered successful until a client can face these stimuli on their own without experiencing their post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can be effective for those who have trouble verbalizing the emotions they experience in connection with their trauma. During EMDR sessions, imagery is introduced so that the mind is allowed to redirect its focus to something more positive. As therapy continues, clients should be able to think more positively when they are exposed to their triggering stimuli.

Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) is a sub-form of CBT that teaches coping skills and primes clients for dealing with triggers before they even happen. Counselors guide clients on how to silently speak with themselves with the new narratives put into place by CBT. Role-playing and exposure therapy are also engaged during SIT.

Of course, in some cases, medications might be recommended for additional assistance in coping with symptoms. SSNIs and SSRIs (such as Paxil and Zoloft) tend to be the go-to medications for starting treatment, but beta-blockers, anti-depressants, benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, and MAOIs are sometimes used as well. Those who have insomnia might be prescribed Minipress, although it might not be effective for treating any of the daytime symptoms.

PTSD treatment is not a one-size-fits-all system. As the individual and their experiences vary, so do the forms of treatment. This is why it is important for anyone who suspects they might have post-traumatic stress disorder to seek professional help; there is no shame in reaching out.