After a traumatic event, you don’t feel like the same person—because you aren’t the same. Not only have you seen, felt, and heard things you could never imagine, your brain structure has physically changed.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show that during extremely traumatic experiences, neural pathways are redirected. For 20% of trauma sufferers, these structural detours in the brain will create symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
What Is PTSD?
The American Psychological Association (APA) describes PTSD as an anxiety disorder that develops in some people who experience trauma. “People with PTSD may relive the event via intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares,” says the APA. In some cases, PTSD sufferers may avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma. Not to mention, their feelings of anxiousness may be so intense that they disrupt their daily lives.
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
Symptoms of PTSD may be delayed or mild at first, making it difficult to draw a direct line to it. To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must display all the symptoms below for more than a month. It’s important to note that these symptoms are common after any traumatic event. If they come and go after just a few weeks, you may be experiencing acute stress disorder, rather than post-traumatic stress disorder.
Intrusive memories – Whether it’s a recurring nightmare or flashbacks when you’re awake, intrusive memories can haunt you at all hours of the day.
Avoidance – As the APA noted, PTSD may prompt you to avoid people, places, or events that remind you of the traumatic experience you had. Avoidance can also mean you create an emotional barrier because you don’t want to think or talk about the event.
Negative thoughts – Anxiety and panic can create a temporary feeling of dread. You may also lose interest in the hobbies you once enjoyed or the people you once enjoyed them with.
Changes in physical reactions – If you suddenly start jumping at the sound of fireworks, have trouble sleeping, or indulge in excessive drinking or other substance abuse, these may be signs of a larger mental health problem.
7 PTSD Coping Skills
You know that coping with PTSD is a constant struggle. Even if you deal with it in a clinical setting, it helps to have some skills in your back pocket to supplement your treatment and help you in times of need. Here are seven ways to cope with PTSD:
1. Learn Your Triggers
After experiencing a trauma, you’ll encounter aspects of everyday life that remind you of the incident. If you find yourself jumping at the sound of a car horn or feel your stomach drop when you see someone wearing a hooded sweatshirt, take note. These are examples of an overly emotional reaction. Anything that induces fear, sudden sadness or other negative emotion could be a trigger for your PTSD. Identify what these persons, places, and/or things are, so you can limit your exposure to them.
If you’re seeing a mental health professional, they may advise you to have some exposure to your triggers in an effort to desensitize yourself (prolonged exposure therapy). If that’s the case, make sure you’re surrounded by a strong support system. Talk to your friends and family about your triggers, so they can be there for you. And don’t attempt exposure therapy without the guidance of a trained mental health professional.
2. Practice Relaxation Techniques
Once panic sets in, you may find yourself hyperventilating. To reverse or prevent this, control your breathing at the first sign of anxiety. Take long, slow breaths, focusing entirely on the inhalation and exhalation of each breath. This will distract your mind as well as calm your nervous system. For some, daily meditation is most effective. Like any skillset, a consistent relaxation practice will train your brain to better manage stress.
3. Ground Yourself
Grounding is best practiced while you are feeling calm—and before you really need it. The technique is simple: Focus on the present moment through careful and thoughtful observation. Unlike meditation, you’ll keep your eyes open and even speak out loud, taking note of your surroundings.
Notice the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, feel the soft touch of your cat’s tail, or gaze at an odd-shaped cloud in the sky. The point is to look around and recognize life in its many forms. You could even write down what you see in a journal.
4. Join a Support Group
Group therapy lets PTSD sufferers share their traumatic experiences with each other, if they feel comfortable. Sessions are safe and free of judgment, so everyone can open up. Ultimately, the goal is to realize you’re not alone and your symptoms are normal.
If in-person group therapy is too daunting, you can find plenty of support groups online and through social media.
5. Engage in Positive Activities
Sometimes, you just need a distraction. Participating in game night with friends or taking dance lessons at a local studio are examples of positive activities that occupy your brain. Work on finding an activity you really enjoy, so you’re more likely to keep up with it for the long-term.
6. Focus on Your Physical Well-Being
People who suffer from PTSD are more likely to experience physical health problems, such as:
- Heart disease
- Digestive issues
- General pain
To reduce or prevent these, eat well and move often. Regular exercise—even short, moderate bouts—can significantly improve your mood, cardiorespiratory system, and joint health. Couple that with a well-rounded, nutrient-rich diet, and you’ll feel better inside and out.
Writing can help you release thoughts and feelings that are eating at you. The best part is a journal is completely private. You can divulge as little or as much emotion as you want.
To reap the benefits, get in the habit of journaling first thing in the morning if it helps you start the day with a clear mind. Or try writing right before you go to bed to decompress from the day.
Not sure where to start? How about with gratitude? Simply write down three things for which you’re thankful.
Treatments for PTSD
Everyday coping mechanisms are crucial for managing your PTSD, but often more formal treatment is needed too.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. It aims to change your patterns of thinking and feeling and your behavior. Typically, you’ll work with a psychologist or therapist one-on-one to create positive affirmations. You’ll use these positive replacements whenever negative thoughts and feelings bubble up during your day-to-day routine.
Your therapist may recommend exposure therapy. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is one form of exposure therapy. It involves recounting the traumatic event while a therapist observes your rapid eye movement. Slowly, the therapist will guide you toward positive thoughts, so your brain learns to overcome negative emotions. With each session of EMDR, recalling the event should become less distressing.
Prolonged exposure therapy is another option. It uses progressive imaging to replay the incident and trigger symptoms in a controlled environment. This form of therapy teaches you coping mechanisms to take control of your fear.
Sometimes medication is prescribed for PTSD. A few selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are approved by the FDA to treat PTSD. These can be effective, but they can come with unwanted side effects.
While these are common methods of coping with PTSD, they aren’t always enough or the right fit. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is an outpatient, non-invasive, FDA-approved method for treating PTSD. It works by making changes to the nerve cell activity in your left prefrontal cortex, allowing the negatively altered pathways to be accessed and rewired.
Using TMS for PTSD has been proven effective. One study resulted in a third of participants experiencing significant improvements in their PTSD symptoms. Learn more about it here. It’s also covered by TRICARE®.
If you’re living with PTSD or think you might be, seek professional help right away. There are plenty of options to help you cope with traumatic stress and find the relief you deserve.