A young woman walks into a friend’s home and almost immediately is confronted with an all too familiar smell of Old Spice. Within minutes she finds her breath hard to catch, her palms are sweating and the floor appears to be spinning. She is unaware of what is happening until moments later when it hits her: her grandfather, he always wore Old Spice cologne. The smell takes her back to age 6 when the abuse first began. PTSD.
A man drives the familiar route home on an ordinary day, and as he approaches the intersection of First and Fern, he recognizes an uncomfortable churning in the pit of his stomach as his heart begins to pound louder and panic seems to rush up. He begins to sob uncontrollably as visions of his crash eight months earlier rush to meet him. The same crash that resulted in the death of his beloved wife. PTSD.
A soldier arrives home after a six month deployment. Within the first four weeks he notices his jumpiness and inability to sleep. Instead of connecting his symptoms to his time in Iraq, he brushes it off and blames everyday fatigue. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, the pictures, the sounds, the smells are an all too familiar pain he doesn’t want to bear. PTSD.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder comes in many shapes and sizes. According to the National Center for PTSD, it is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. The signs of PTSD may present themselves almost immediately, or they can be delayed for months or years, and/or can be intermittent until properly addressed through psychotherapy and medication. It is normal to have feelings of anxiety and/or depression after a car accident or even a natural disaster, however, the difference occurs when a person is experiencing the following: 1. Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares. 2. Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma. 3. Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.
In 1980, PTSD became an official diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Nearly 50% of all mental health patients have PTSD. With that said, exactly how common is PTSD in America, more specifically, in men and women? According to The Nebraska Department for Veteran’s Affairs, an estimated 7.8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with women (10.4%) twice as likely as men (5%) to develop PTSD. About 3.6 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 to 54 (5.2 million people) have PTSD during the course of a given year. This represents a small portion of those who have experienced at least one traumatic event—60.7% of men and 51.2% of women reported at least one traumatic event. The traumatic events most often associated with PTSD for men are rape, combat exposure, childhood neglect, and childhood physical abuse. The most traumatic events for women are rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, and childhood physical abuse.
As a mental health professional for the last 15 years, I have witnessed many forms of PTSD. I have, at times, surprised clients when I mention the possibility that they may be experiencing PTSD. So often people stereotype the disorder and assume a person must experience war, or have been a victim of rape or some other catastrophic event in order to have PTSD. There are times when the reality lies not in the event but rather our response to the event. For example, when I was in my early 20’s I was involved in a car accident that resulted in my car being totaled and my collarbone broken. Although it was a relatively uneventful car accident, months afterwards I still noticed the sweating of my palms and increased heart rate each time I drove in traffic. Even now, over 20 years later, when I am driving down this same road I feel the presence of a slight increase of my heart rate.
For those who experience more traumatic events such as combat or sexual abuse/assault, help should be sought immediately. It is recommended you first reach out to a Licensed Professional Counselor, Social Worker or Psychiatrist to discuss your situation and to determine your immediate needs. Taking this first step is the beginning of putting yourself first in a healthy way. Counseling and medication are often necessary but a rare few can go without medication. When such a person does not receive proper help until years later, they are not deemed helpless but rather they may need more intense therapy. It has been observed that when a person waits for years until they seek help, a great deal of life happens along the way which may or may not have a negative impact on how they are handling the traumatic event. The delay in getting help could result in drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling addiction, promiscuity, depression, panic attacks, anger, racing thoughts, restlessness, insomnia, and/or eating disorders. After a trauma occurs, the brain is designed to go into survival mode. The down side is our survival mode has a tendency to lean towards self-numbing rather than self-healing. We as humans can only withstand so much emotional or mental pain before the mind begins shut-down mode. Things like addictions become desirable primarily because they are an immediate relief and take little to no work or thought.
As you reflect on your life and perhaps wonder if you may be experiencing PTSD, remember that as humans we do not “get over” trauma, but rather we “work through it.” Take this time to reach out to your local mental health professionals and then take a leap into the unknown. Taking care of yourself mentally, emotionally and physically will be uncomfortable, but it is through this discomfort that healthy change begins. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD you are already uncomfortable. The questions becomes, which discomfort are you most willing to experience now?