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National Mental Health Awareness Month: PTSD

On April 30, 2014 President Barack Obama proclaimed the month of May to be National Mental Health Awareness month because even though there has been significant progress in the diagnosing of mental illness and the removal of many of society’s stigmas towards those who are affected there are still too many Americans who suffer in silence.

The multiple issues of PTSD.
The multiple issues of PTSD.
The silent suffering.

The purpose of designating a month to raise awareness is to continue to teach understanding of the issue of mental illness, make treatment more accessible and connect with those who struggle with mental illness on a daily basis; to make sure they know that they’re not alone.

Every year one in five people will be diagnosed with a mental illness and less than half of them will seek out treatment. Often it will be because of lack of insurance or qualified help. There is also the issue of society’s acceptance and the shame that the person may feel. Too often people who suffer with a mental illness feel invisible.

This is true for the thousands of women every year who are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can happen after a person experiences a traumatic event in their lives such as combat or military experience, terrorist attacks, child sexual or physical abuse, sexual assault, physical assault, and natural disasters such as a tornado, hurricane or earthquake. People who witness a murder can also develop PTSD.

For a long time people, even professionals, thought that PTSD was connected with serving in the military. The disorder traces back to the Civil War when it was referred to as “soldier’s heart” even though it wasn’t officially identified as a disorder until 1980.

Over the years it has been given many other names such as “shell shock,” “combat exhaustion”, “Stress Response Syndrome” and “battle fatigue.” Regardless to what name they gave it, for a long time PTSD was looked at as a person having a weak character; that they were cowardly or too soft. Along with this came a stigma for people affected with the disorder to suffer in silence. In addition to their symptoms came the attitude of society which made seeking treatment difficult. As a result those with PTSD suffered in silence for years.

People with PTSD often develop ways of coping with their symptoms such as drinking, drug use or aggressiveness towards others. Many are unable to hold down a job and end up living their lives in poverty. Homelessness is also a problem for those with PTSD.
Some of the symptoms can include:

1. Flashbacks (reliving the experience) which usually begin with triggers such as a sight or smell that remind you of the experience or even make you feel like you’re going through the experience again.

2. Avoiding talking about the event, avoiding situations or people that may trigger memories. Many people with PTSD keep themselves busy in order not to think or talk about the event. Not seeking help is another type of avoidance.

3. People with PTSD often feel numb. They have difficulties expressing their feelings or holding conversations with others about every day events. Many also avoid inter-personal or intimate relationships. They also struggle with having positive feelings or compassion towards others.

4. Hyper arousal. People with PTSD experience feelings of always being on edge and tend to be on the lookout for danger or have feelings of paranoia that they’re being followed or watched. Hyper arousal causes someone with PTSD to feel angry, experience difficulties concentrating, is fearful and easily startled.

According to statistics men are more likely to experience a traumatic event especially if they’re in the military, but women are more likely to experience an event that’s high impact such as violence or sexual assault. Out of both sexes only a minority of them will develop PTSD, but they are more likely to be females.

The possibility of developing PTSD after experiencing a trauma is 8% men and 20% women. The percentages go even higher in urban settings with 30% of women becoming diagnosed with PTSD.

It has also been learned that adults who were either diagnosed with toxic stress or who had the symptoms of toxic stress, but went undiagnosed stand a greater chance of being diagnosed with PTSD after a traumatic event.

Toxic stress is often found in children who have unstable or chaotic home environments, endure abuse, neglect and/or have a caregiver with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Statistics state that people who develop PTSD after experiencing childhood abuse can go as high as 62%.

Men who are diagnosed with PTSD tend to struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, but women often suffer from severe depression. Both sexes experience panic attacks which can increase over time if the PTSD symptoms go untreated which they often do. In fact too often PTSD is seen as a silent epidemic especially among women.

PTSD is not curable, but with proper treatment, and in some cases medication, the disorder is controllable; that those affected can manage it, but only with ongoing treatment as well as an awareness of their condition.

It’s important for people with PTSD to have a high level of knowledge of what it is, what the possible stressors are and how to manage it.

Stress is unavoidable, but often people have or deal with stress that they don’t need to. Take a good, hard look at the stress that you have. Take an inventory of what stressors you have that you can’t avoid or reduce such as raising children versus those that you don’t need like an unhappy relationship or toxic friends.

Eliminate from your life those items that are causing you stress and that you can freely do without. As you work towards a goal of less stress you may find that there are stressors you didn’t even know that you had.

For many people with PTSD clutter can be a major form of stress. Getting rid of clutter may be one of the easiest tasks you attempt when looking to de-stress. If you feel overwhelmed call on a friend or even your children to help you downsize.

Another important step is to find a qualified therapist. It doesn’t have to be someone who specializes in the treatment of PTSD, but it should be someone who is knowledgeable about the disorder.

There are certain types of therapies that have worked well for those with PTSD.

1. Exposure therapy. This type of therapy helps the patient face and gain control of the distress of the trauma. In certain cases, the memories of the trauma can be confronted all at once. This is called flooding. In other cases, it’s worked up to in a gradual manner by using relaxation techniques. It can start with a life stressor that’s less upsetting or taking the trauma a piece at a time. This is called desensitization. It is up to the therapist and client to decide which approach is best. Prior to either approach the client is taught coping techniques such as relaxation or other exercises. A client who isn’t taught this runs the risk of being re-traumatized.

2. Stress-Inoculation Training (SIT). In this type of therapy, the therapist helps the client understand what their cues are when dealing with fear and anxiety. The client learns coping skills in order to manage anxiety such as relaxation and deep breathing exercises that helps them cope with the symptoms of PTSD.

3. Cognitive-Processing Therapy (CPT). This therapy is used almost exclusively to treat PTSD symptoms after a sexual assault. CPT uses both exposure therapy as well as cognitive therapy. During these sessions the client’s issues of being stuck (the world isn’t a safe place) are addressed usually by the client writing about the trauma in detail. The client then has to read it aloud. This helps the client address their stuck points by not only identifying them, but finding evidence that proves their points to be false.

Treatment for PTSD may also require that you take medication. Currently Zoloft and Paxil are the most frequently prescribed medications for PTSD, but Prozac, Lamictal, Zyprexa and Seroquel have also had some success.

Therapy should be ongoing for a length of time because conditions can sometimes get worse or the client can suffer a relapse in following prescribed therapies. Depression, especially among women, needs to be monitored.

It is possible for people with PTSD to lead a full and fulfilling life. There are thousands of survivors who go on to graduate from college, raise families and even hold down permanent jobs. Many even have successful careers, but the first step to achieving this is taking responsibility for your condition and going through therapy. Once you’ve done that anything is possible.

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