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Most people have heard the familiar anecdotes. The friend who jokes about how their childhood haircut left them with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The coworker who sarcastically details their PTSD at the sound of a whistle. The endless barrage of commentaries somehow highlighting the pervasiveness of PTSD caused by old clothes, songs, movies, teachers and just about anything else imaginable. But these types of comments might be unintentionally minimizing both the seriousness of an important mental health challenge and the underlying realities of trauma itself.
It is important to note the relationship between PTSD and trauma. Too often we use the term trauma gratuitously in the same vein as we assign the phrase PTSD to our facetiously nostalgic feelings toward something. In reality, trauma is a highly complex, multilayered subject and PTSD is one possible disorder that can occur as a result of experiencing trauma.
What causes trauma?
Trauma refers to an emotional response caused by experiencing or even witnessing a distressing or disturbing event. This might include things like sexual assault, physical violence, child abuse, military combat, bullying, natural disasters, accidents, injuries, loss of a loved one, terrorism and much more. Acute trauma refers to a single distressing event, while chronic trauma refers to a response to ongoing or repeated events. Further, complex trauma refers to a response to multiple traumatic happenings.
Symptoms of trauma
The symptoms caused by trauma bear out the intertwined relationship between mental and physical health. Common emotional symptoms can include fear, helplessness, anger, mood swings, guilt, shame, excessive worry, social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, avoiding things associated with the trauma and more. Physical symptoms might include fatigue, increased heart rate, changes in eating patterns, difficulty sleeping, body aches and pains and more.
Often these symptoms dissipate over time and eventually go away. However, some people may develop adjustment, anxiety or depressive disorders. About 8 percent of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetime. The specific symptoms of PTSD might develop immediately in the aftermath of the trauma or not for months or even years later, particularly in young people who may not understand they have experienced trauma or in those who have subconsciously blocked out the trauma.
Symptoms of PTSD
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the specific symptoms of PTSD last for at least one month, interfere with daily functioning and are generally grouped into four categories:
- Intrusive memories such as flashbacks or nightmares
- Avoidance by evading potential reminders of the traumatic events
- Arousal and reactivity symptoms like being easily startled or always on guard, having angry outbursts or difficulty sleeping
- Cognition and mood symptoms like negative thoughts about oneself or the world, feelings of guilt or shame, lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities or feelings of hopelessness.
When you or someone you know has experienced trauma and shows any of these or other symptoms, it is important to consult a mental health professional, who can make any appropriate diagnosis and, most importantly, provide help in addressing the symptoms and planning a path forward.
The topic of trauma has been and continues to be researched and studied extensively and the mental health profession continues to evolve its understanding of the complicated subject. Just as important, we as a society continue to build compassion for trauma survivors. As we do so, I invite everyone to come together to provide empathy and support for others who, as the saying goes, are often fighting battles we know nothing about. While the impacts of trauma can be deep and lasting, help and treatment is available for those who need it on the path toward recovery and growth.
Bryan Busch is a licensed mental health counselor in Cedar Rapids. He also works at Folience, the parent company of The Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.