It was on a rainy winter’s day in 2017 when I first heard the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in a way that was meaningful to me. I was sitting it a tub chair, feeling totally uneasy, almost wired yet vacant, staring at the uninspiring view of a Co-op supermarket through the raindrop obscured window. My Psychologist was sharing the diagnosis of PTSD and I was keen not to accept it.
‘’Oh no! I’m not having any of that’’ I remember saying internally.
I distinctly recall averting my eye contact as if this meant her words couldn’t penetrate me and I remember a very real fear rising in my chest as I asked myself ‘’What on earth will they think of me at work!’’ Having a disorder was not high up on my list of things to do and certainly not how I wanted my colleagues to perceive me.
The reality was, I had just voiced a debilitating set of symptoms that I’d been experiencing for several weeks, triggered by me finally leaning into the 8 years of sexual abuse I’d been exposed to as a child. Reflecting on the severity of the situation and my subsequent state, it is no wonder the diagnosis followed. I am grateful now that I did accept the diagnosis and went on the receive the help I needed.
I now work with people who are experiencing PTSD and I am also studying the disorder and impact it has. Seeing both the theory and the practical elements through a lens of my own personal experience is fascinating, and the more I learn, the more I am in wonder at the complex genius of the human brain.
PTSD is a condition classified by the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the US and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) in the UK.
For a diagnosis of PTSD to be made there are several criteria that must be met.
1. A person must have been exposed to a trauma, either by way of an experience or witnessing an event that is deemed to be a threat of or actual death or serious harm OR threat to personal integrity or that of somebody else. This can include being consistently exposed to details of traumatic events such in the cases dealt with by judges, police officers, paramedics etc.
2. There must be at least one intrusion symptom that is linked to the event which starts after the event occurred. This would include elements such as distressing dreams, flashbacks of the events that appear to be as real as the event itself and physiological responses in line with those experienced during the event, when reminded of what happened such as crying, heart racing etc.
3. Avoiding memories, thoughts and feelings about the event which can extend to avoiding situations that may trigger a reminder. If the PTSD was triggered by a car accident on a motorway for example, there may be an avoidance of motorways going forward.
4. Not being able to recall aspects of the initial events in detail and losing interest in social connection and/or experiences. Detaching from the world to protect oneself.
5. An altered state of arousal and reactivity which may lead to unhelpful behaviours such as hyper-vigilance, anger or a propensity to misuse stimulants such as drugs/alcohol etc.
I believe it’s critical to note that many people experience traumatic events during their lifetime. In fact, research conducted by The National Council suggests that 70.4% of adults have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives.
With these statistics it’s hardly surprising that the number of people being diagnosed with PTSD is rising. I would argue however, that in many cases only some, rather than all the PTSD diagnostic systems are present.
It is very likely that following a traumatic event, a person will experience some of the aspects of PTSD I have mentioned. This would be a normal response to such an incident and the symptoms would dissipate with time. Of course, having a few of the symptoms does not mean a person has the disorder, so importantly one of criteria for PTSD that I haven’t touched on is the duration that the symptoms are experienced over.
My fear, which is being backed by some experience working with clients, is that PTSD is being diagnosed at general practice level for people who are experiencing some of the symptoms short-term. My hope is that people will seek help from a psychologist in determining whether the diagnosis is correct. It’s estimated that only a small percentage of those who experience trauma go on to have chronic PTSD, i.e. the symptoms continue to be experienced over prolonged periods.
I feel grateful that I discovered the Havening Technique® which is a safe and non-intrusive way to work with trauma and symptoms of PTSD. Where PTSD is a chronic condition, I will only do this when working alongside a medical professional, but for the general symptomatic presentation, a client can work with me to change the way they perceive the situation.
For a trauma to be encoded in our brain a few elements need to be present. Firstly, there needs to be the event itself coupled with what is known as a vulnerable landscape in the brain (determined by environmental factors we have been exposed to throughout life). We then need