Could you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and not know it? The answer is “yes.”
PTSD is a serious condition that can make life unbearable if you don’t treat it. Doctors and psychologists often miss the signs. They may think you’re just depressed or anxious. For this reason, it often goes undiagnosed, sometimes for years.
While many people recover from traumas, if you have PTSD, it won’t go away with time.
Just the opposite. It hijacks your brain, getting you thinking and acting in ways that you can’t control. You may feel paralyzed and unable to function. You might feel better for a period of time and then lose it when something triggers it off.
Take it from me. It’s not something you can wish away.
Most people think of PTSD as a response to a major trauma like war, a terror attack or shooting. But it can happen after less serious seeming events as well.
For example, pain can cause PTSD if it’s severe and/or chronic. Same goes for illness.
That’s what happened to me. I had the perfect storm of factors: going from being healthy to sick and in pain overnight, doctors who dismissed my symptoms, and financial insecurity as I struggled to keep my business afloat.
As the pain and sickness worsened, my nervous system went into overdrive. I stopped sleeping. I was lucky to get three hours of shut eye. Loud noises made me jump out of my skin.
The worst part was the way my mind never stopped spinning. I spent hours going over and over my fury at the doctors who dismissed me. The tape never stopped playing. I was stuck in a nightmare.
How likely are you to have it?
Right now everybody is at risk for PTSD. We’re living through a global pandemic the likes of which none of us has seen. We’re all in fight or flight mode at least some of the time. That’s how it takes root.
You don’t need to be sick with Covid19 or a frontline healthcare worker to be traumatized by it. It’s all over the news and social media. We’re already seeing social unrest and riots, just a few months into the pandemic.
That said, if you’re in a vulnerable category, work with the sick, or have been through a previous health crisis, you’re that much more at risk.
Whatever your situation, you need to know the warning signs. You can’t wait for your doctor or therapist to suggest it.
For this reason, you need to be your own advocate. If you think you might have PTSD, insist on being taken seriously. You can’t go it alone, and you shouldn’t have to.
Here are five warning signs that could mean you have PTSD:
Disclaimer: This isn’t an exhaustive list and I’m not a mental health professional. If you don’t relate to them, you may very well still have it. Do your research and talk to a professional you trust.
- Feeling jumpy and nervous. Loud noises might make you feel like you’re jumping out your skin. Or you might notice yourself reacting with alarm to things that didn’t used to bother you, such as the doorbell or a siren on the street. And while it’s normal right now to be aware of others when you’re out and about, if you’re scanning for any and every movement around you, that’s a sign.
- Lashing out. You may find yourself yelling at or even hitting someone before you know what you’re doing. You might also destroy property—your own or someone else’s. It comes out of nowhere and often passes after a short time. You may not remember having done it because it’s so out of character. Or, you might justify it to yourself without realizing it’s a brain hijack.
- Reliving the trauma. Most people have heard PTSD causes flashbacks. This is just one way it can show up. You may not “see” anything. Instead, you find yourself chewing over the details again and again, unable to let them go.
- Nightmares or night terrors. Covid19 is giving many people nightmares right now. But if you’re waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat on a regular basis, that’s a warning sign. The nightmare doesn’t need to be about the event or fear. The thing to be aware of is how often it’s happening and how intense it is.
- Isolating yourself. This is when you do anything you can to steer clear of triggers that bring back the trauma. It can add up fast, until you end up avoiding any and all activities that might set it off. Though we’re all dealing with some social isolation right now, if you’re not doing things that give you pleasure and meaning—or aren’t reaching out to friends or family—it’s another warning sign.
Treatments for PTSD
The good news is that PTSD is treatable. I was able to move on from it after six months of seeing a psychologist who specialized in trauma. Here are some of the most effective modalities for it:
- EMDR. This is a method for dealing with trauma that involves reliving the memories within a safe environment. It uses eye movement or other desensitization methods. It’s been shown to be effective, and insurance often covers it because it’s performed by licensed therapists and social workers. It’s what I used and I haven’t had an episode since I completed a six-month series five and a half years ago.
- NLP. This is less well known than EMDR but is similar in many ways. It can be more effective because it deals with the root cause of the traumatic response, actually rewiring your brain. I used it to add depth to my EMDR, and it made a difference. The downside: insurance doesn’t cover it because it’s generally not used by licensed therapists.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This method works with you to get perspective on your thinking. If you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts or are stuck in a loop, this could be the method for you. It’s also covered by most insurance plans. Be aware however that you need someone specifically trained in trauma-focused CBT.
These are add-ons to support you. Don’t rely on them as your primary treatment.
- Meditation. Spending as little as half an hour a day meditating can help calm your body and mind. It also makes it easier to see how your brain is playing tricks on you. If you’re not sure how to do it, try an app like Calm or Headspace.
- Hypnotherapy. While it hasn’t been studied enough as a treatment for PTSD, it can be relaxing. That’s a good thing. It may also help with unconscious triggers.
- Medication. Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants for PTSD, and studies do show SSRIs such as Prozac can help. The downside is if you stop taking them (or they stop working), you could end up back at square one.
- Talk therapy. If you already have a therapist you like and trust, there’s no harm in continuing. Just be aware it’s not proven to help much unless they’re trained in trauma focused therapeutic treatment.
- Support from friends or family. This helps reduce your isolation and can help you feel better. If you’re having thoughts of suicide or self harm, a trusted friend can be there to guide you towards getting help. If you don’t have this kind of support, speak to your therapist or call a suicide hotline if necessary.
Don’t wait for it to get better
If you think you have PTSD, seek help. As tempting as it may be to ignore it, don’t. It’s treatable. This means can get your life back on track, no matter how bad it is right now.
As someone who went through it and came out the other side, I can attest to this. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with you if you have PTSD. It’s a normal reaction to trauma, and can happen to anyone.
Once you’re aware of it, you can take action. People recover from PTSD all the time. The key is realizing you have it.