Understanding life events that may cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
by Sarah Graham Wednesday 05 November 2014 5643245
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that is caused by distressing, traumatic or unexpected events or experiences. It affects an estimated one in three people who have been through some kind of trauma, from members of the armed forces to victims and witnesses of crime, and may affect different people in different ways.
Whatever the specific cause of the trauma, Registered Psychotherapist Susan Heath says PTSD is a result of the way human beings are "hard wired to protect their ability to carry on functioning."
She adds: "When events are too much for you, and you suffer trauma which threatens to overwhelm you, your automatic response may be to relegate painful feelings to the unconscious, so that you can continue to function on a day to day basis. While the overwhelming feelings are tucked away from conscious awareness, you continue to function, but they can easily be triggered and erupt when something in the outer world resonates with your original traumatic experience."
We asked some RSCPP therapists to explain some of the life events that commonly cause PTSD.
One of the factors that can turn a normal post-traumatic reaction into something more complex and long term (over 6 months for PTSD) is the extent to which the event is within a person's expected range of experience. For example, you might be able to process normally the range of emotions and physical symptoms you suffer after a road traffic accident, whereas you might find a sudden physical illness or unexpected diagnosis much more overwhelming to cope with, particularly if it brought up hidden feelings, and therefore you could experience PTSD.
A common cause of PTSD in everyday life is road traffic accidents. The accident does not need to involve fatalities or even physical injuries, but if you believe at any time during the accident that you might die or come to serious harm, that may be enough to trigger a post-traumatic reaction. Your anxiety levels may be raised after the accident; you may feel permanently jumpy, watchful and on "red alert".
Our usual idea of PTSD is that it's caused by a single dramatic event, a terrifying accident or horrific violence. However, it's important to realise that domestic events within the family can also cause PTSD in childhood, which may then continue to cause you severe distress in adulthood. To cause PTSD, the traumatic event(s) must be seen subjectively as a threat to life - this includes witnessing a threat to the life of others. Children are relatively powerless, and therefore may feel overwhelmed, terrified and unable to cope with situations that adults could deal with. If you have experienced threats to your safety during childhood, you may be triggered into frozen fear, dissociation or panic attacks by things that remind you of the original situation, or find yourself going to extremes to avoid similar situations. Triggers might be obvious, such as facing anger from others, or less obvious - perhaps being terrified by intimate relationships because you associate those with inevitable traumatic wounding.
Combat stress can be a cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Repeated, horrific experiences - whether being an eyewitness or being actually physically hurt - result in difficulties with processing what happened. Some of the most traumatic repeated experiences, such as being shot at, violated or losing friends in combat, result in a heightened stress response that may impact on your relationships and general wellbeing, from flashbacks to self-harm. In some ways, you still respond as if the trauma or assault was happening again.
You can find out more about symptoms and causes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including how to find a therapist. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.