Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD can emerge following exposure, either directly or indirectly, to a distressing situation such as witnessing a death, natural disaster, suffering or witnessing abuse, accidents, etc.
The symptoms of PTSD can begin to be experienced three months after a distressing event; however, the symptoms may not emerge at this point and may emerge at any other time in one’s life. This is called delayed onset and can be overwhelming as individuals begin to experience the symptoms seemingly at random.
The symptoms of PTSD include:
- Intrusive experiences consisting of a sense of reliving the event in visual images (or thoughts and nightmares) with physiological responses, sounds and smells, all of which occur with the same intense feeling of panic and fear as experienced in the distressing situation. Any reminder of the event triggers these intrusive experiences at any time resulting in a sense of lack of control. These experiences often feel disorganised, fragmented and confusing. An inability to place the event in a sequential timeline, or to remember elements of the event at all, often occurs and causes both distress and frustration.
- Avoidance of thoughts and feelings, or people, places and things related to the events or directly associated with the traumatic event. Avoidance may not only result in an increase in symptoms; it often results in a diminished interest in participating in activities leading to withdrawal and feelings of detachment and estrangement from others.
- Altered thoughts and moods include low self-esteem, blaming oneself, frequent feelings of fear, guilt and shame, fear and danger, loss of interest in things, and a restricted range of emotions (or feeling numb). Inability to remember all or parts of the event is common.
- Increased arousal, such as irritability, self-destructive acts (reckless behaviour), lack of concentration, being constantly vigilant for danger, a high startle response (feeling very “jumpy”), lack of concentration and difficulties sleeping. Distress and physiological arousal (e.g. pounding heart, increased breathing rate) when exposed to reminders of the events.
PTSD Treatment and EMDR
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy, or EMDR Therapy, has been proven through rigorous research to be one of the most effective treatment models for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Trauma Focussed CBT and Exposure Therapy are also proven, effective therapeutic models. EMDR has been verified as an effective treatment for PTSD and meets the criteria for evidence-based practice in the UK by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (2005) and in Australia by the Australian Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health (2013).
EMDR looks at emotions, physical sensations, thoughts and beliefs altogether. Following a structured eight-phase protocol, desensitisation begins with the individual’s attention being directed to the chosen target memory, negative beliefs, and body sensations while following the psychologist’s fingers moving from side to side. Then, following a set of eye movements, the therapist asks the client to report what they notice now; they are then asked to focus on what had emerged, on a body sensation or their level of distress. When distress is reduced to 0 or 1 (on a scale of 10), a preferred positive belief statement is installed with more sets of eye movements until the positive statement is rated highly believable. Any residual sensations are then desensitised with eye movements until there are no longer present.
During EMDR, the patient is encouraged to “let whatever happens happen and just notice” so that freely-associated memories enter the mind. This allows processing to take place allowing the memories to be consolidated and put into historical context. EMDR treatment encourages distancing effects that are considered effective processing of the memory; this means the memory is no longer as vivid and felt with such emotional and physical intensity.
If you believe you are experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, seek help from your GP or psychologist.