What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)? Brisbane Psychologist, Kelly Gall, explains …
Most people will experience one or more traumatic events – exposure to serious injury, actual or threatened death or sexual violence for example – during the course of their lives.
These events impact us differently to other stressful life events. For some people, it might be a one-off event, such as a natural disaster or car accident; whereas others, such as those experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse, may by repeatedly traumatised.
Most people exposed to such events will experience some symptoms in an immediate reaction to the event, which then dissipate in the days and weeks that follow.
When the symptoms continue, it may be that the individual is experiencing PTSD or another mental health condition.
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
People with PTSD experience a range of distressing, and often disabling symptoms following their exposure/involvement in one or more highly stressful or threatening events.
More recently, the PTSD diagnosis has been expanded to better capture those whose exposure to a critical incident is secondary, where they were not the ‘victim’ – such as first responders, clean-up crews, even counsellors exposed vicariously.
The symptoms of PTSD are clustered into four main categories:
- ‘re-experiencing’ symptoms;
- ‘avoidance’ symptoms;
- ‘arousal’ symptoms (physiological symptoms); and
- negative changes in thinking and mood associated with the event.
More specifically, these signs and symptoms of PTSD could include:
- Recurrent involuntary distressing memories;
- Distressing dreams or nightmares relating to the event;
- Dissociative experiences such as flashbacks;
- Physiological reactions and/or distress in response to trauma related triggers;
- Avoidance of memories, thoughts or feelings about the event;
- Avoidance of reminders (situations, places, objects etc) that are related to the event;
- Problems/not remembering important aspects of an event;
- Changed beliefs about the future;
- Negative beliefs about their own role in an event (eg blame);
- Exaggerated negative beliefs about the self, the world or other eg ‘everyone is a threat’, ‘I’m never safe’, ‘I am bad’;
- Withdrawal from or disinterest in life activities;
- Withdrawal in relationships with others (feeling detached or estranged);
- Inability to experience positive feelings;
- Persistent negative emotions (fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame);
- Being irritable, angry or aggressive;
- Being reckless or self-destructive;
- Difficulties concentrating;
- Hypervigilance (being overly alert or on-guard);
- Disturbed sleep.
People with PTSD also often suffer from other mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
Treatments for the Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
Treatment for PTSD can include psychological counselling or medication, or a combination of both. Psychological counselling has proven to be more beneficial than the use of medication alone, and is worth considering if you or a loved one are experiencing difficulties.
Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can:
- help people to cope with distressing memories, thoughts or feelings;
- reduce feelings of anxiety and agitation and increase people’s ability to relax;
- help people to cope with situations, objects, people or locations they have been avoiding because it reminds them of their experience;
- help address the thoughts and beliefs that are keeping them ‘stuck’ and distressed by their experience.
Trauma Focused Therapy
People can find trauma-focused therapy to be challenging, particularly as it usually involves talking about their experiences, or going places in their daily life that trigger some of the signs and symptoms of PTSD.
However the relief created by tackling these issues is often significant, and helps sufferers to enjoy life more fully again. A structured ‘course’ of treatment can take 12 weeks, but some people can require longer where their circumstances are more complex (eg experiencing other mental health conditions, or where they have more than one traumatic experience).
Like all types of therapy, it is important that you find someone who you feel respects and understands the impact that your experience has had on you. It is also important to find a psychologist who has received trauma-specific training, and experience in working with people suffering from trauma.
Looking after yourself physically, emotionally and socially can also help to increase the likelihood that you will recover following an exposure to a potentially traumatising event.
Author: Kelly Gall, BSc (Hons), M Psych (Health), M Clin Psych, MAPS, MCHP.
Kelly Gall is a Health Psychologist who is passionate about helping clients improve their physical and emotional wellbeing. Kelly has had training in, and utilises trauma-focused CBT with her clients. She uses both imaginal exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy, depending on her client’s needs and the nature of their traumatic experiences, and has worked with military personnel, police and other first responders in relation to work-related traumas and civilians in response to a range of events including sexual assault. Find out more on her website, Healthy Inside and Out.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Kelly Gall, call M1 Psychology on (07) 3067 9129 or you can book online today.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association
- Phoenix Australia – Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (2013). Australian Guidelines for the Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Phoenix Australia, Melbourne, Victoria.