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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition caused by trauma, occurring after a particularly distressing event, such as military combat, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, violent assaults, or serious road accidents. PTSD also occurs after rape, sexual abuse and emotional abuse.

We understand that living with PTSD can have a significant impact on your day-to-day life, which is why Priory specialists at nationwide hospitals and wellbeing centres can discuss your situation, and talk you through the various treatment options available and devise a treatment plan towards helping relieve symptoms of the disorder.

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If you are diagnosed with PTSD, alongside panic attacks and related symptoms, you will frequently relive the scenes in your mind, appearing as nightmares or flashbacks, which may be accompanied by feelings of loneliness, irritability, and sometimes guilt if you feel there was something you could have done to prevent the harrowing events from unfolding.

PTSD can be successfully treated, even if your symptoms appear some time after the initial trauma, with the type of treatment offered depending on the severity of your symptoms and how soon they have appeared after the event.          

You may experience symptoms of PTSD immediately after the distressing event has occurred, although many people have a delay in onset of symptoms for months or even years. When these symptoms do occur, they may happen constantly, and severely affect your ability to function most days, although some people with the condition can go extensive amounts of time without noticing any issues, before symptoms ultimately flare-up.

In many people these symptoms lead to depression, panic attacks and generalised anxiety. People can withdraw from work and social activities.

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Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder

To assess whether you are suffering from PTSD, you may be required to undergo structured interviews and psychological assessments. The symptoms of PTSD must also last for at least a month before treatment options are considered.

Medication for PTSD

You may be prescribed medication to reduce the anxiety, depression and insomnia often experienced with PTSD. In some cases, medication may help to relieve the distress and emotional numbness caused by traumatic memories, and also helps you to participate in psychotherapy sessions.

A range of antidepressant drugs are also used in treating the condition in adults, with consistent monitoring applied in terms of making sure the type of medication and the dosage is contributing to positive results.

Antidepressants might be recommended if you have associated symptoms of depression and anxiety, while they can also help with any sleep problems.                     

Therapy treatment options at Priory

Immediately after a traumatic event, you may experience some of the symptoms found in PTSD which are perfectly normal reactions to shock. This may include feeling ‘numb’ or that you are detached from the reality of what has occurred, while you may also find it difficult to find a consistent pattern of sleep.

This is otherwise known as an acute stress reaction, and shouldn’t last for more than a few weeks. If you find that you are experiencing PTSD symptoms for over a month, you may require professional medical help and support in order to appropriately address how you are feeling.        

If you have been diagnosed with PTSD, there are a range of treatments available. Priory specialists will talk you through the options available and recommend the most suitable treatment based on your personal circumstances.

PTSD treatment options typically include:

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

People with PTSD find it very difficult talk about the traumatic events that have caused it. Trauma focused CBT helps them to talk about the trauma which is the first step in treatment.

CBT helps you to understand your thought processes and how to change your feelings and reactions to your symptoms. One form of CBT is known as exposure therapy, which is unique to treating trauma seen in conditions such as PTSD.

This involves you imagining the trauma within a safe, controlled environment to help you to face up to your fears. This enables our specialists to examine your reactions to the event and help you to overcome your anger, shame or guilt. This will enable you to deal with traumatic memories and feelings without becoming overwhelmed or emotionally numb.

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR combines elements of exposure therapy and CBT with eye-movement techniques. While concentrating on your traumatic experience, special rapid eye movements will help you through the healing process and improve your confidence by activating specific areas of the brain which releases any emotional experiences which have affected the nervous system. This form of therapy is particularly effective if you have PTSD, any many scientific research studies have demonstrated its effectiveness.

Group therapy for PTSD

By discussing your emotions and trauma with a group of other PTSD sufferers, you will achieve greater understanding of your condition and emotions. Group PTSD treatment will help you to become more confident and trusting, and enable you to focus on the present rather than the past.   

Brief psychodynamic psychotherapy

This focuses on the emotional conflicts caused by the traumatic event, particularly experiences dating back to when you were young. By working with a calm and unbiased therapist, you will achieve a greater sense of self-esteem and develop effective methods of thinking and coping with intense emotions.

Priory also provides a tailored one-to-one outpatient therapy package for PTSD. Our packages offer certainty of price for a set amount of one-to-one therapy sessions, including discounted rates. The amount of sessions that we recommend within each package is based on national guidelines.

Watchful waiting

If your symptoms of PTSD are diagnosed as mild during your initial assessment, or your symptoms of the disorder have lasted only a short amount of time, then it may be recommend that you embark on a period known as ‘watching waiting’.

This is an approach which requires increased focus on whether your symptoms are getting better or worse, with a follow-up appointment allowing assessment of whether treatment to relieve your symptoms is required.                                    

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder believed to affect around one in three people after a traumatic experience, and was first recognised in people serving in combat due to the distressing scenes experienced far removed from everyday human existence.

Witnessing friends get killed in the midst of battle or being injured yourself can sometimes lead to lasting stress and emotional strain, with symptoms of the condition such as flashbacks and nightmares linked to the trauma immediately affecting your everyday life or manifesting over a period of months or even years.

People with PTSD aren’t limited to those who have been at war however, with overwhelming and frightenig experiences such as being involved in a car crash or being the victim of an assault potentially causing the condition. People working in the police, fire or ambulance services are particularly prone to stress-related conditions due to persistent exposure to traumatic scenes.

People who have been raped, sexually abused or emotionally abused can also develop PTSD.

If you are diagnosed with PTSD, you may be told that you have mild, moderate or severe PTSD, which will determine what type of treatment you are offered to improve your symptoms. The diagnosis you are given is no reflection on how distressing or upsetting the initial event might have been, and simply describes the extent of your symptoms during the current period.

When you receive your diagnosis, it may also be described with the following descriptions:

  • Delayed-onset PTSD - If you experience symptoms of PTSD after more than sixth months since the traumatic event, it can often be described as the delayed form of the condition.
  • Complex PTSD - Sometimes referred to as CPTSD, this type of PTSD refers to protracted trauma experienced when growing up, which means the symptoms are more ‘deep seated’ than other forms of PTSD. If you have CPTSD, you will have some of the symptoms of PTSD, with additional symptoms such as feelings of distrust and disconnection with people around you. Complex PTSD may be associated with emotional instability
  • Birth trauma - Traumatic experiences and complications when giving birth such as unplanned caesarean sections and emergency treatment can lead to a type of PTSD directly related to childbirth.   

If you have moderate to severe PTSD, it is highly likely that you will require a treatment programme consisting of therapy based treatment, which can also be combined with anti-depressant medication for relief of symptoms, offering a greater chance of effective therapy sessions.

What are the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?

Symptoms of PTSD are both psychological and physical; usually developing within first month of the traumatic event, although they can appear up to a year later. While the specific symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person, living with the condition can have a significant effect on your ability to function in everyday life, particularly when you have persistent and extreme symptoms.

The signs and symptoms most commonly experienced by those with PTSD include:            

  • Reliving the experience through nightmares and flashbacks
  • Numbness and loss of deep feelings
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Suffering painful emotions such as guilt, anger and anxiety
  • Avoidance of dealing with grief, anger and anxiety
  • Experiencing anger issues
  • Avoidance of activities that could trigger memories of the event
  • Depression
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Headaches, dizziness and chest pains
  • Irritability and difficulty sleeping
  • Withdrawal from work and social interactions

Reliving the experience

The most widely reported symptom of PTSD and arguably the most distressing includes re-experiencing the initial source of trauma, which can appear in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, thoughts and physical sensations causing sweating and trembling. Whichever form involuntarily reliving the traumatic event takes, it will often feel intensely vivid and closely mimic the initial physical and emotional responses felt when your trauma initially took place.

These experiences can be interspersed with more general negative thoughts about the event, where you may internally question why your life has been affected so dramatically and if you could have done anything to stop it.                          

Avoidance

Due to the debilitating nature of PTSD, the desire to avoid reliving the experience or even thinking about the event can be strong enough to make you avoid people and places linked to the source of trauma for worry that exposure might trigger uncomfortable thoughts or emotions. Talking about the event can be particularly difficult when you have PTSD, which might lead to you ‘pushing’ distressing memories away from your pattern of thought, with distractions such as work used to avoid having to think about how it has affected you.

Persistent anxiety

Every stressful or traumatic life event will cause most people to experiencing heightened emotional reactions as the brain tries to process such a significant event. If you have PTSD, these feelings are heighted to the point where you may regularly feel anxious and ill at ease, making it difficult for you to settle, even during quieter moments of reflection.

This state of mind is also known as hyperarousal, and can cause symptoms such as:

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating

What causes post-traumatic stress disorder?

While the initial cause of PTSD will often be clear after a particularly traumatic event, it is not yet known why some people go on to develop the disorder, while others experiencing similar circumstances will not.

It is unlikely you will be diagnosed with PTSD if you go through upsetting situations such as a divorce, being made unemployed, or not passing an exam, although you may still experience some symptoms which are closely related to the condition.            

The types of traumatic events which can cause PTSD include:

  • serious road accidents
  • violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery
  • prolonged sexual abuse, violence or severe neglect
  • witnessing violent deaths
  • military combat
  • being held hostage
  • terrorist attacks
  • natural disasters, such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis
  • rape
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse

Risk factors

Other factors believed to contribute to the development of PTSD include having a history of or existing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Having a lack of social support after the event can also exacerbate feelings of confusion, frustration and isolation, which can increase your chances of experiencing symptoms of the condition.

Reasons for development   

Theories for why PTSD develops in some but not others experiencing the same or similar levels of trauma include:

Survival mechanism - While anybody who has experienced a traumatic or stressful event will develop natural stress reactions as the brain learns to cope and protect the body from extreme shock, people with PTSD may have an exaggerated version of this ‘survival mechanism’ response.

The most common symptoms such as flashbacks and nightmares may be the body’s way of ensuring you are prepared for any similar events in the future, with feelings of increased anxiety and hyperarousal an example of how your body can become ‘stuck’ in a state of helping you react quicker to future trauma.

High adrenaline levels - Studies indicate that if you have been diagnosed with PTSD, you will have unusually high amounts of stress hormones in your body, which causes some of the extreme physical and emotional symptoms common in the disorder, such as feelings of numbness and the hyperarousal associated with the fight or flight reaction. Your body will continue to produce the hormone even when there is no obvious danger.   

Changes in the brain - Brain scans of people with PTSD show that parts of your brain responsible for emotional processing are different than those with the condition. The hippocampus area of the brain is known to store memories and control emotional responses, with the reduction in size shown if you have PTSD possibly explaining the seemingly disrupted link between fear, anxiety, memories and reliving of the traumatic event which isn’t being correctly processed.

Treatment of PTSD at Priory involves tried and trusted therapy techniques, working towards reducing the symptoms of the condition. This enables you to process memories and emotions relating to the event which are stopping you from functioning in everyday life.  

Call our dedicated team today on 0800 084 6116, or make an enquiry. 

This page was clinically reviewed by Dr Leon Rozewicz (MBBS, FRCPsych, MRCGP, MRCPsych) in July 2021, and is scheduled to be reviewed again in July 2023. To view all Priory personality disorder specialists, please click here.        

Signs and symptoms of PTSD
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What causes PTSD?
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