Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis I see frequently when working with all ages. Trauma (primarily threats to one’s life or safety, or proximity to threats to another, as well as sexual violence) impacts each person differently. Common symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of triggering experiences, insomnia, unwanted thoughts, and hypersensitivity to stimuli-particularly if reminiscent of the trauma, such as loud noises or closed spaces. Those diagnosed with PTSD may also find themselves more anxious, depressed, irritable, isolated, detached, or experiencing self-destructive behaviors. PTSD is becoming increasingly recognized in the mental health field and trauma-informed care is seen as critically important. What was once simply called “shell shock” for soldiers returning from war is now seen as a a collection of symptoms that may be profoundly impactful to the individual. PTSD did not became a recognized diagnosis until 1980, when it was finally listed in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM. Since this inclusion, evidenced-based treatments have expanded. With it estimated to affect around 3 million Americans per year, the question is: how to treat PTSD?
There are several effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. Individual Therapy, medication (most commonly SSRIs), or the two combined, can significantly decrease symptoms. Talk therapy, whether in an individual or group setting, can help normalize feelings and behaviors while gradually desensitizing the client to the trauma. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) incorporate challenging harmful, negative beliefs (“I am at risk right now” “It was my fault,”) gradual exposure therapy, and skills such as mindfulness and positive coping skills (meditation and relaxation exercises, exercise, journaling, art, etc). The goal of this therapy is for the client to begin to recognize negative thoughts and feelings, and to challenge these and utilize coping skills outside of therapy. With time, practice, and perhaps the help of a therapist and psychiatrist, the trauma begins to recede into the past and the individual is able to increase positive feelings and a sense of control.
*some people struggling with PTSD may experience severe depression and thoughts of self-harm or suicidality. If these thoughts arise, immediately call 911 or visit your local emergency room or psychiatric hospital.