Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness. It involves exposure to trauma involving death or the threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
PTSD causes intrusive symptoms such as re-experiencing the traumatic event. Many people have vivid nightmares, flashbacks, or thoughts of the event that seem to come from nowhere. They often avoid things that remind them of the event—for example, someone who was hurt in a car crash might avoid driving.
PTSD can make people feel very nervous or ‘on edge’ all the time. Many feel startled very easily, have a hard time concentrating, feel irritable, or have problems sleeping well. They may often feel like something terrible is about to happen, even when they are safe. Some people feel very numb and detached. They may feel like things around them aren’t real, feel disconnected from their body or thoughts, or have a hard time feeling emotions.
While most people experience trauma at some point in their life, not all traumatic experiences lead to PTSD. We aren’t sure why trauma causes PTSD in some people but not others, but it’s likely linked to many different factors. This includes the length of time the trauma lasted, the number of other traumatic experiences in a person’s life, their reaction to the event, and the kind of support they received after the event.
Trauma is not always a single event in the past. Some trauma, particularly repeated acts like abuse or trauma during wartime, can impact a person’s life far beyond the symptoms of PTSD. Some use other terms like ‘complex PTSD’ to describe these experiences.
Many people feel a lot of guilt or shame around PTSD because we’re often told that we should just get over difficult experiences. Others may feel embarrassed talking with others. Some people even feel like it’s somehow their own fault. Trauma is hurtful. If you experience problems in your life related to trauma, it’s important to take your feelings seriously and talk to a health care professional.
When someone is diagnosed with PTSD, loved ones can also experience a lot of difficulties. You may feel guilty or angry about the trauma itself—then, on top of those feelings, experience difficulties around PTSD. You may feel like your loved one is a different person, worry that things will never be normal, or wonder what will happen in the future. Here are some tips to help you cope:
- Start by learning more about PTSD.
- People who experience PTSD may withdraw from family and friends.
- Understand that behaviours related to PTSD—like avoiding certain situations or reacting angrily to a minor problem—are not about you. They are about the illness.
- While it’s usually not a good idea to support behaviours that create problems, it’s still important to support your loved one’s overall movement toward wellness.
- Ask what you can do to help, but don’t push unwanted advice.
- Try to put your own feelings into words and encourage your loved one to do the same. It’s easier to solve problems or look at conflicts when you know what’s really going on.
- Take care of your own wellness and seek support for yourself if you experience difficulties.
- If a loved one’s PTSD is affecting other family members, it may be helpful to seek family counselling.
With support, people can recover from PTSD and the effects of trauma. Recovery is good for the entire family, especially for young people who are still learning how to interact with the world. A loved one’s recovery is a chance for everyone to learn the skills that support wellness.