What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?
PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder, but unlike some other anxiety disorders PTSD is something which occurs in response to an actual threat rather than a perceived threat. Most people will have an acute stress reaction to a traumatic event. Whereas a lot of people will get over trauma in their own way, for about a third of people trauma reactions continue to be triggered by reminders of the original event(s) and your symptoms begin to feel overwhelming.
What is trauma?
A trauma is a life event or series of life events that shocks, upsets or distresses us. It could be anything from a car crash, loss of a family member, a robbery, witnessing an accident or attack, a terrorist attack, natural disaster, catastrophe, rape, traumatic childbirth, having a psychotic episode or the experience of abuse or violence.
These events can create a lot of powerful and unpleasant emotions that can remain with you even long after the event happened. Man-made disasters such as terrorism are thought to create longer-lasting difficulties in people than natural disasters as they destroy our trust in other people.
Trauma is often something associated with risk to life and the reminder that we will all die at some time.We expect to feel safe and secure, that bad things won’t happen to us and that things generally happen for a reason. Trauma can shatter these expectations leaving us feeling unsure of ourselves and unsteady.
After a traumatic event most people will experience an acute stress reaction (below) but for some, they may go on to develop PTSD as well.
How do people react to a trauma?
Immediately you may feel ‘shock’ which can include being ‘cut off’ from your own feelings or from everything around you; feeling numb, stunned or dazed. As well as shock you may go into denial and find it hard to accept what has happened. However, even after the initial shock, traumatic events may continue to affect you. In some cases individuals may go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Even if you don’t develop PTSD, a traumatic event can leave you trying to cope with a lot of powerful emotions. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists you may feel:
- Frightened that the same thing will happen again. This may lead to feelings of distress and some people feeling worried that they will have a ‘break down’
- Helpless if what happened was out of your control; you may feel powerless, vulnerable and overwhelmed
- Angry about what has happened, angry with yourself, the world or towards whoever was responsible.
- Guilty about not being able to stop whatever happened or about choices you made. You may feel bad that you survived if others did not
- Sad or depressed particularly if you or someone you knew was hurt in some way. This may leave you feeling exhausted, sad, eating more often and/or using alcohol/drugs
- Ashamed or embarrassed about the events, that you are not coping well or have strong emotions you feel you can't control. Don’t be embarrassed about asking for support from others
- Relieved that the situation has ended and that the danger has passed
- Hopeful that things will improve and your life will move on. Often after a trauma people describe having a greater appreciation of life, sometimes referred to as post-traumatic growth
- Physical reactions to a trauma such as: disturbed sleep, nightmares, disrupted eating habits, poor memory, being unable to make decisions or feeling exhausted.
Step 1: Talk to someone you trust
This could be your best mate, parents, boyfriend, girlfriend or tutor. It might feel difficult, especially if you have kept things to yourself for a long time or have avoided talking about what happened.
Talking it over is important for lots of reasons:
- it can be a weight off your mind to say it out loud;
- you will need their support if you are struggling;
- someone just being there can help you relax and feel less isolated;
- they can offer reassurance that things will get better;
- they can motivate you when you cannot motivate yourself; and
- they can help you find help or help you with practical things like booking appointments.
We really recommend talking to someone but if you feel you can’t talk to someone you know then the Samaritans offer confidential advice and support and can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90.
Step 2: Self-help
Self-help therapies are a range of techniques you can apply yourself to help cope with stress and feel in control.
These work for many people and can be done alongside any other therapy you may be having. There are many available for anxiety which may be suitable for PTSD; discuss these with your health professional if you see one. Self-help could be completing exercises that you read, watch or listen to, or complete online, it could be using relaxation training or it could be attending support groups.
Step 3: Finding professional help and support
If you feel your stress and anxiety is something you don’t want to handle alone there is lots of available support.
Contact your GP for a referral to a local mental health team, or to counselling or psychological therapy. There are also local and national support networks that your GP will be able to put you in touch with.
Have a look at what works for treating PTSD and see our Interactive Map for local help in Birmingham.
Step 4: National Contacts
PTSD Support, you can email PTSD support at Andy@ptsd.org.uk
PTSD info American site with some useful information
Samaritans Helpline and website providing confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which can lead to suicide. Helpline (24 hours): 08457 90 90 90 Website: or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or you can visit a local branch but please ensure that they are open!