Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can come about after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic or life-threatening event. PTSD can happen to people from all walks of life, no matter their age, who they are, or where they come from. The distressing event is usually combat-related for many active and retired military personnel. However, a variety of events can cause it to develop, which all fall under the umbrella of non-combat PTSD. These events include:
- Natural disasters
- Terrorist attacks
- Serious accidents
- Childhood physical abuse
- Sexual assault, sexual abuse
These are examples of extreme causes of PTSD. But there are many others, such as losing a home or job, having a miscarriage, ending a long-term relationship, or the death of a loved one. All of these can overwhelm someone’s ability to cope with loss and change in a healthy manner.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the disorder affects 3.5 percent of U.S. adults, and it is estimated that one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD, APA states.
A person may develop PTSD immediately after experiencing a traumatic event or over time after the event has passed.
“If thoughts and feelings from a life-threatening event are upsetting you or causing problems in your life, you may have PTSD,” writes the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
A range of debilitating symptoms results after someone is exposed to a traumatic event. Such exposure can be experienced firsthand or indirectly. These symptoms, which range in severity, include:
- Unwanted memories of traumatic events
- Avoiding anything that triggers unpleasant memories of a traumatic event
- Flashbacks that include reliving an event to the point where the person loses touch with reality
- Emotional numbness
- Detachment from family, friends
- Scary thoughts
- Extreme anxiety, heightened alertness, or awareness of threats
- Sleep problems
- Anger issues
People with PTSD can experience symptoms that grow in intensity. PTSD can also increase one’s risk of developing mental health problems. The Mayo Clinic lists several, including substance use, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and depression and anxiety.
PTSD And Traumatic Memories: What’s The Connection?
ScienceDirect explains that traumatic memory plays a central role in the criteria used to diagnose PTSD. It also cites research that shows memory capacity, contents of memory, and memory processes that are affected by traumatic events could transition to the development of PTSD.
Helping people manage their traumatic memories is essential to treating the disorder. Traumatic memories can be formed after an experience boosts stress hormone levels and emotional arousal levels. WebMD writes that stressful events can create bad memories that are challenging to forget.
“The theory: In stressful situations, the stress hormone norepinephrine may prime the brain to remember what happened in order to avoid the same threat in the future,” according to the health site.
Another challenge traumatic memories present is that they are not always realized by or accessible to the people who have them. This group includes those who have not been formally diagnosed with PTSD.
Not being able to tap into distressing memories makes it harder for some people to connect their inability to function to the trauma loop they are stuck in. They are experiencing stressful events repeatedly without knowing it.
However, even if they are not consciously aware of the traumatic memory, they may inexplicably feel triggered by an object, such as a photograph or song, or a get-together, like a party or other social gathering. These triggers are signs that the brain is hypersensitized and on alert to protect us from situations that signal danger.
In its article titled, “The Science Behind Traumatic Memories,” TheMonkeyTherapist.com writes that during a state of hyperalertness, the body reacts as if the trauma is happening again, even if the person is not aware that this is happening. “So, we often feel scared or anxious in normal situations, and we don’t know,” the site states.
A 2015 Northwestern University report states that traumatic memories hide in the brain like a shadow. It goes on to say that, “At first, hidden memories that can’t be consciously accessed may protect the individual from the emotional pain of recalling the event.
“But eventually those suppressed memories can cause debilitating psychological problems, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or dissociative disorders.”
The study concluded that the best way to access memories locked away is to have the brain return to the state of consciousness it was in when the memory was recorded.
Memory Distortion Can Worsen Trauma Stress
Some people who experience trauma may remember the event happening, but not all of the details, such as the time or location where it took place.
The Mayo Clinic explains that this can happen because the traumatic event is recorded and embedded in their memory. However, the specific details or central facts may not be encoded in the person’s memory, so it will be challenging to retrieve that information years later after the trauma has passed.
While some people may not be able to recall everything that happened, others may end up remembering things that didn’t actually happen or did not happen the way they think they did. This is called memory distortion, or “over-remembering” trauma, and it can affect one’s recollection of distressing experiences.
Psychology Today writer Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D., and Deryn Strange, professor of forensic psychology, explain this, writing, “In fact, traumatic memory distortion appears to follow a particular pattern: people tend to remember experiencing even more trauma than they actually did. This usually translates into greater severity of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms over time, as the remembered trauma ‘grows.’”
Adding on to the memory of a traumatic experience can harm one’s mental health. The authors write that over-remembering has been linked to an increase in PTSD symptoms.
Why It’s Important To Treat PTSD
PsychCentral writes that many people who survive trauma struggle with what comes after the experience because they don’t understand the biological changes the brain and body go through and what that process means for how their lives will be affected and how the condition can be treated.
The biological changes are worsened by what it says are three major brain function dysregulations, which are:
An overstimulated amygdala: This mass is located deep in the brain and is responsible for tagging memories with emotion and identifying survival-related threats. Once trauma occurs, it can remain in high alert and look for threats everywhere.
Underactive hippocampus: This part of the brain becomes less effective at making synaptic connections needed for memory consolidation because an increase in glucocorticoid, a stress hormone, kills cells in that area. This break in communication keeps the body and brain in reactive mode because it is not aware that the distressing event has passed.
Ineffective variability: Elevated stress hormones keep the body in a state where it can’t regulate itself. As a result, the sympathetic nervous system remains highly activated, which can keep the body and its systems fatigued.
All of these dysregulations illustrate why getting help for post-traumatic stress is in the best interest of the person who is living with it.
When traumatic memories become deeply suppressed in the brain, however, a person doesn’t get the help they need because they are not aware that they need it. If you suspect that you’re caught in a trauma loop, you must get help for post-traumatic stress, which is treatable.
If this condition goes untreated, attempting to function on a healthy level in everyday life will become stressful and filled with unpleasant feelings, including fear and anxiety. Trauma loops can be difficult to break, so seek professional help from specialists who know how best to treat PTSD.
Signs you may be stuck in a trauma loop include:
- Experiencing shaking, trembling, rapid breathing or a racing heart
- Having racing thoughts
- Feeling disconnected from yourself, others
- Feeling emotional numbness
- Not trusting people, places, situations
- Struggling to ward off intrusive, unwanted thoughts
- Having a hard time moving on
- Constantly feeling fearful, helpless, or sad
If these symptoms linger persistently beyond what you think is a short period, seek help. People with PTSD can receive treatment for the disorder at any time, even if they have struggled with it for years. Treatment can alleviate all symptoms of PTSD or make them less severe.
Success rates vary, as everyone is affected differently, but treatment is recommended to prevent symptoms from getting worse. The VA recommends seeking treatment for PTSD if troublesome, distracting thoughts continue for more than three months or if there are questions or concerns about drinking and drug use.