What is PTSD?

PTSD is short for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.

People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended.

They experience intrusions, flashbacks, nightmares and can feel like they relive the traumatic event when they are in situations, which remind them of that specific experience. Even if it is just a specific smell, noise, a look on a person’s face or any other (innocent) trigger, which can re-activate the traumatic memory.

They are in a constant state of high arousal, high tension, jumpiness, irritation, high alertness – it is as if their body is still in “danger- mode”.

These constant feelings of stress and panic are very exhausting, especially when they are combined with sleep difficulties. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression.

Who can develop PTSD?

In the past PTSD was called “Shell shock” after World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II.

But nowadays we know that not only combat veterans can suffer from PTSD.

Virtually anyone who experiences a possibly life-threatening situation can develop PTSD. Children, adults, elderly people. Men and women alike- even if there are higher numbers reported in women than in men among patients with PTSD.

Besides Acute PTSD – as a reaction to a one-time event- there is also Chronic and Complex PTSD when a person experiences a number of different traumatic events or is experiencing prolonged abuse. Think of a person that grows up in a very unsafe environment and experiences physical and emotional abuse throughout the entire childhood. This kind of experiences can have long-term effects and might result into chronic PTSD.

When does a traumatic event lead to PTSD?

Obviously not every traumatic event results into a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Otherwise many more persons would suffer from it since there are a lot of accidents, aggressive conflicts, robberies etc happening every day.

The key is: what happens after the traumatic event? Can the person process this event properly?

This depends on the situation the person is in: is he/she feeling safe afterwards? Is there support? Can the person be open about the event and are their people who help him or her emotionally? Does the person understand that it is not his or her fault what happened? Is there time to grieve and let out all the emotions that this event triggered? Can the person and his/her social network make room and accept the emotions that are coming up? Does the person feel like he or she can regain control of life again or does this event change the whole concept he or she had?

If all conditions are met in a positive way, a person can recover from a traumatic event. The body gets rest and calms down. He or she might have nightmares and flashbacks for a while but as long as you understand that these are aspects of the brain processing this event, the traumatic event can be stored as a neutral memory. It gets integrated into our perception of life but doesn’t affect our sense of being negatively. We regain a feeling of safety and a positive outlook on life and relationships in general.

When the trauma can’t get processed

But in some cases, a person can’t process the traumatic event. If abuse or any kind of danger is prevailing, body and mind don’t get the rest that is needed to be able to process a situation. The body is still in high alert and needs full energy to “survive”. As long as a person is in “survival-mode”, the brain can’t process past events.

Also, if there is a lot of shame and guilt connected to the memory, processing is interrupted as all feelings and thoughts related to this event seem unbearable. So – consciously or unconsciously- a person blocks the memories.

The PTSD develops, the more a person tries to suppress or avoid any thing that reminds him or her about the traumatic event.

Some people don’t dare to fall asleep anymore due to the nightmares, they have or avoid certain places or people in order not to get reminded of the terrifying event.

But the problem is: our body and mind need to and want to process the memory in order to achieve a neutral and stable mode again. This is a natural mechanism that otherwise gets blocked.

And the more we are trying to suppress something, the harder it comes back to us. So, flashbacks, intrusions, nightmares etc kick in even harder.

And the more a person tries to escape the negative memory, the more he/she gets stuck and imprisoned in that terrible momentum.

And this is when a trauma turns into a PTSD.

What can be done?

There are different therapeutic methods, that are known to work fast and efficiently. They are based on the natural mechanism of the body and the mind, that leads instinctively towards active procession of an event, turning it into a processed and “neutral “memory.

Psychologists work with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), IMRS (Imaginary Rescripting) and CBT (cognitive processing and exposure in vivo and in vitro) and often combine these with mindfulness-techniques.

Besides, there are physical approaches to process the tension that is maintained in the body like Somatic Experiencing and TRE (Tension Release Exercises).

Can PTSD be cured completely?

Yes, PTSD can be cured completely. Especially acute PTSD (after one specific traumatic event) can be treated quickly and successfully.

But it is important to be able to endure negative emotions and thoughts during the therapy. And of course, treatment should be offered by registered and experienced professionals only.

People with chronic or complex PTSD – stemming from long-term exposure to traumatic events during childhood- might need longer therapy. Besides trauma-focused therapy, they often need to learn healthy coping-mechanisms that they didn’t develop during their upbringing.

While PTSD symptoms are very impairing and have strong negative effects on your overall wellbeing and quality of life, a successful therapy can open doors to a whole new self and a positive and worthwhile life.