Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic, life-altering or life-threatening event. One in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime, but there is much to learn about a diagnosis that impacts approximately 3.5% of U.S. adults every year.
UCF RESTORES Executive Director Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., ABPP, is no stranger to the intricacies of the disorder. Through one-on-one exposure therapy, emerging technology, and group therapy sessions, she, along with the team at UCF RESTORES, has brought relief to many suffering from PTSD. 76% of first responders and 66% of participants with combat-related trauma no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD following just three weeks of treatment with UCF RESTORES. But, with great success comes a responsibility to educate others – a task from which Beidel and her team do not shy away.
In honor of PTSD Awareness Month (June) and PTSD Awareness Day (June 27), Dr. Beidel sits down to explore PTSD, how it develops, who it affects and more, creating a comprehensive guide to all that the illness holds.
In your own words, how would you define PTSD?
PTSD is one type of reaction that can occur when we witness some of life’s most horrific events. It is accompanied by emotional distress, behavioral avoidance and disruptions in daily functioning.
What causes PTSD and who can experience it?
The cause of PTSD is exposure to a traumatic event, which is defined as actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. One can be exposed by directly experiencing the event, witnessing the event or learning that the event occurred to a family member or close friend.
It is important to understand that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Some people may have only a mild reaction, some people may develop anxiety or depression, and some people may develop PTSD. Anyone can experience PTSD, but we know people who are the victims of a traumatic event or have witnessed an event firsthand are the most likely to develop PTSD.
How is PTSD detected or diagnosed?
It is important to say first that many people experience distress immediately after a traumatic event. People may have trouble sleeping or eating. They may feel tense or “keyed up.” They may find that they cannot stop thinking about the event. These are all parts of a normal reaction to trauma and are part of the recovery process.
In other words, PTSD is not diagnosed in the days immediately following an event because experiencing anxiety and avoiding certain places or people in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event is very common. We only diagnose PTSD when these changes in behavior continue to occur for at least 30 days after the event in question.
PTSD is diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional based on a cluster of symptoms that a person experiences in the aftermath of a traumatic event. In addition to the presence of this cluster, the symptoms and behaviors must occur frequently and create significant distress or impairment in a person’s ability to do their job, go to school or fulfill other personal- or family-related responsibilities.
How does PTSD affect someone?
Symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories:
- Distressing memories, dreams or flashbacks of the event, or to certain aspects of the event.
- Avoidance of places associated with the event or of objects, situations and/or people that serve as a reminder of the event.
- Negative mood (anxiety, anger or depression) and impaired ability to remember parts of the event.
- Heightened anxiety, arousal, problems with concentration or problems with sleeping.
Why is treatment for PTSD so valuable?
Treatment for PTSD is valuable because people really can recover from the effects of these traumatic events. Many people think they cannot recover, but that simply is not true. However, we must start with the understanding that experiencing trauma does change you and you will be changed forever … but that does not mean that you will have PTSD forever. It does not mean that you must allow that traumatic event to rule your life. You can take back control and you can recover. You will be different, but you can move forward.
Deciding to start therapy and face your fears is a courageous decision. The basis of any type of therapy is hope. People seek out therapy because they want change, they hope that someone can help them feel better. It is the same reason that we seek out medical help when we feel physically ill. But we want treatments that work – we don’t want a physician to say “well, people tell me that these pills make them feel better, but no one has really tested it out scientifically.” In the same way, there should be some science behind psychological treatments for PTSD. People who have experienced traumatic events deserve our best treatments – the ones backed by science. Now, not every treatment works for every person and sometimes people have to look around to find a therapist with whom they can work successfully. But every person deserves treatments that work – therapy with the evidence to prove it works.
How long can PTSD last?
I like to tell people that there is no single “reaction” to a traumatic event and there is no single timeline to recovery. People recover at their own pace.
What does it mean to “recover” from PTSD? What is “on the other side” of PTSD for those recovering?
Again, I really want to emphasize that experiencing a traumatic event changes someone forever. Events that are this dramatic, and in many cases horrific, are not events that one will forget. However, we are firmly convinced that these events shouldn’t dictate every aspect of one’s current functioning. Recovering does not mean “forgetting” the event occurred. Recovery means overcoming the cues and triggers that elicit anxiety, create sadness and promote behavioral avoidance of places, people or activities. It means taking that memory and being able to place it in one’s long-term memory storage. It is something that occurred, it is part of one’s life, but it no longer rules one’s life – it does not dictate your day-to-day functioning. For some people, recovery is also a period of posttraumatic growth. They take that horrific event and use it as an opportunity to do something to make the world a better place.
Can you share some characteristics of resiliency that you have seen in those battling PTSD?
I think optimism and a sense of hope are important characteristics. Exposure therapy (the treatment with the most evidence for its effectiveness) is hard work. However, it does work, and it works in a relatively short period of time. It takes courage to face fears and it takes a willingness to be uncomfortable for a short period of time. Resiliency also requires an ability to think long term – “short-term pain for long-term gain.” Exposure therapy is not physically painful, but it can initially create some distress … but tolerating that initial distress can lead to long-term improvement and conquering PTSD.
For family and loved ones that believe one of their own may be struggling with PTSD, what would you suggest they do?
Be supportive. Understand that someone you love is struggling with a traumatic event. Give that person the space to talk about it if they want to but be understanding if they don’t want to talk. Sometimes people who have experienced a traumatic event don’t want to tell others – or at least not the details. This comes from a sense of love and protection – “I don’t want those images in my head to be in my spouse’s head, too.” Understand that this is not something that they can voluntarily turn off. Support their efforts to seek treatment and understand that there will be times (particularly around the anniversary of the event) where they may struggle again.
If you could say one thing to someone “in the depths” of their PTSD – someone that is, perhaps, exhausted, worn out and losing hope – what would it be?
You are not alone. There are treatments that work. If your current therapy is not working, then find another therapist. Find someone with whom you can connect; interview them about their approach to trauma and the treatment that they use. Ask them about the evidence behind it. Effective treatments are available. You have a right to get treatment and to treatments that work.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health and would like to request an appointment or consultation with UCF RESTORES, please contact us here or by phone at (407) 823-3910.