When you think about summer, what are some of the first thoughts, ideas, or memories that pop into your head? Most people would typically list things like going to the beach, swimming pool, cookouts, fireworks, and no school. For most, this time of year can be an enjoyable time filled with many opportunities to enjoy themselves and build lasting memories for years to come. Unfortunately for others, the opposite may be true, as some of these events or means of entertainment could cause feelings of dread, fear, anxiety, or other physiological responses. The most common time of year for this dichotomy to be present centers around Independence Day and the typical fireworks displays nationwide in celebration. It is often because one in eleven people have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime in America. You may find yourself asking questions like: What is PTSD? Where does it come from? How do I know if somebody has PTSD? What should I do if somebody is having a PTSD response to something? All these questions are necessary to ask to gain a better understanding of the condition and how to best help those suffering.
First, let’s address what PTSD is by looking at the definition provided by the American Psychiatric Association: a psychiatric disorder that occurs in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events, or set of circumstances and whose symptoms have persisted through methods of coping and overtime. As for the second part of the question, where does PTSD come from? It is important to understand exactly what trauma is. Trauma is defined as an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing because of their impact, or potential impact, on a person’s ability to function. In essence, those suffering from PTSD have experienced, been exposed to, or have witnessed an incident or series of events that have disturbed them so greatly that their mind and body are struggling to cope and handle the stress put on them by that event.
Understanding the diagnosis is merely the first step. It is also important to identify the symptoms of those suffering. The symptoms of PTSD are broken down into four categories: Re-experience, Avoidance, Negative thoughts, and Hyperarousal. Re-experience symptoms are exactly what they sound like, symptoms that mimic the event that caused the PTSD and include things such as nightmares or flashbacks and can be brought on by triggers associated with that event, such as sights, sounds, or smells. Avoidance symptoms are symptoms associated with behaviors designed to avoid stimuli that could trigger a PTSD response, which would typically be seen as wise, but these are often taken to the extreme and cause impairments to the person’s ability to function. Negative thought symptoms relate directly to the person’s outlook on the world, their ability to feel or experience positive emotions, intense feelings of shame or guilt, and distrust in others or the world in general. The final category of Hyperarousal refers to always being on high alert, where somebody is more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, have difficulty concentrating, have trouble sleeping, and appear easily startled. What should I do if somebody is having a PTSD response to something? Should you ever find yourself in this situation, it is important to remember that the individual may be experiencing some or all the symptoms mentioned above, so patience is a key factor in helping them through their experience. Being there to listen, but not forcing it, if they want to talk can have a large impact on the person suffering as they may feel alone in their struggle since they are the ones being bombarded with intense emotions and thoughts. Should the conversation start to become too intense for you or them, seek help from professionals, such as psychiatrists or therapists who specializes in helping those with PTSD, or by calling 911 for emergency assistance to ensure the health and safety of everybody, especially if, the conversation turns to talk of suicide. While being there for them at that moment is key, it should never come at the cost of your own mental or physical health or well-being.