Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex and distressing mental health disorder that can cause stress, anxiety, and nightmares after a traumatic event. PTSD can start to interfere with your life, making it difficult to maintain your work, school, and relationship responsibilities. However, something called retraumatization can make the disorder worse for people who have recovered from acute symptoms. However, PTSD retraumatization doesn’t mean you will always be stuck with acute symptoms. The condition can be treated. Learn more about PTSD retraumatization, how it works, and how it can be addressed.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder that is characterized by recurrent thoughts of a traumatic event that causes stress and anxiety. PTSD is related to traumas and stressful periods in your life that cause uncomfortable symptoms like anxiety, nightmares, and insomnia. For your experience to be classified as a disorder, symptoms must get in the way of your life, causing significant impairment. PTSD involves both psychological and behavioral symptoms.
Psychological symptoms may include anxiety, flashbacks, and panic attacks. Behavioral symptoms may include avoidance and hypervigilance. You may avoid the place or circumstance the traumatic event occurred and anything that reminds you of it. PTSD is common among people who have served in the military and saw combat, but it can also occur among police officers, firefighters, and first responders at high rates. It can also happen to others who experience something traumatic, like a car accident. Both children and adults can experience PTSD, but they may show PTSD symptoms differently.
While adults may feel irritable and anxious, causing angry outbursts, children may have more subtle signs and symptoms. Children may become clingy, not wanting to leave their parent’s side. They may also act out traumatic scenes during play to express trauma.
PTSD is a complex mental health issue, but it can be treated. Treatment can lead to relief from overwhelming, acute symptoms and better -coping strategies when dealing with potential triggers. However, retraumatization can cause someone who’s in recovery from PTSD symptoms to fall back into acute PTSD.
What Is Retraumatization?
Retraumatization is the return of trauma-related thoughts and feelings that cause you to relive a traumatic moment in your past. Retraumitaztation can happen to people who have recovered from a traumatic event and PTSD symptoms. However, encounters with certain people, places, and things may trigger your memory of a traumatic event and cause a flashback. Flashbacks are one of the most common symptoms of PTSD. It’s more than just a memory, causing very real stress, anxiety, and panic. You may feel like you’re reliving the event. The memory may be so vivid that it feels like it’s happening now, replacing whatever you were experiencing before the flashback occurred.
Flashbacks may feel like you’re watching a video, even though they may not involve seeing images in your mind. They may involve powerful feelings and emotions that occur briefly but bring on immense stress and anxiety. You may recall an entire traumatic incident, or a flashback may just involve a brief detail or emotion related to an incident.
Retraumatization can affect someone who has learned to deal with PTSD and recovered from acute symptoms. It can cause acute symptoms to return, including anxiety, nightmares, and avoidance. Flashbacks are common in PTSD, and they may bring on stress that you can learn to cope with. However, retraumatization usually involves more powerful triggers that cause intense emotions or thoughts that bring you back to a traumatic event in your past.
What Can Trigger Retraumatization?
Retraumatization can occur because of various potential situations and triggers. Some of the same traumatic events that cause PTSD to develop in the first place can also cause retraumatization. People who receive PTSD treatment will learn how to deal with potential triggers and high-risk situations, but it can be difficult to mentally and emotionally prepare for intense traumatic triggers. Here are some common triggers that can cause retraumatization:
- Assault. Assault is a common cause for the development of PTSD, but things like physical attacks or sexual assault against you can cause retraumatization.
- Witnessed events. Sometimes exposure to violence or accidents that aren’t directly experienced by someone with PTSD can cause retraumatization. This may include witnessing violence or seeing the aftermath of a violent crime or tragic accident.
- Fictional events. Sometimes seeing a violent or jarring event as depicted in a movie or TV can cause PTSD, even though you know it’s not real.
- Periods of high stress. Sometimes, trauma isn’t caused by a single traumatic event. Instead, it’s caused by longer periods of high stress, like a tough time at work or a period of financial insecurity.
- Disasters. Natural disasters and widespread accidents can be traumatic events for anyone involved. However, people with PTSD may be more vulnerable to the stressful triggers that come from the shock and suffering caused by disasters.
- Unrest, violence, and warfare. Widespread violence and unrest can be traumatic for the many people it can affect. People with a history of PTSD may experience triggers that cause a return of their PTSD symptoms.
- Injuries and hospitalizations. Injuries or diseases that require medical care may trigger memories of a previous traumatic event that lead to hospitalization.
- Abusive relationships. Physically, emotionally, or psychologically abusive relationships can be a significant source of stress that can cause someone with a history of PTSD to be retraumatized.
- Death of a loved one. The death of a friend or family member that you care for can cause PTSD or retraumatization. If a cherished relationship ends for other reasons, it can also cause PTSD symptoms to return.
What Are the Consequences of Retraumatization?
People who have struggled with PTSD in the past and then experience retraumatization can become discouraged at the reemergence of symptoms. It’s common for retraumatized people to feel a loss of safety and security, which can put you on edge and sap some of the enjoyment out of life. This can lead to depressive disorders and a feeling of hopelessness. Feelings of fatalism, cynicism, and a loss of enthusiasm for life might develop. In severe cases, you may fall into a deep depression and experience suicidal thoughts or actions. If you do experience suicidal ideation, it’s important to reach out for help right away. Recognize that the feelings you’re experiencing and acute PTSD symptoms may be temporary and treatable.
Other common symptoms and consequences of retraumatization in people with PTSD can include:
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Intense nightmares
- Frequent or intense flashbacks
- Paranoia and hypervigilance
- More sensitivity to triggers
- Self-harm and suicide
- Jumpy and overactive
- Sensitivity to stress
In some cases, retraumatization can cause psychotic symptoms like delusions and hallucinations. Sometimes, psychosis can happen because of extreme depression or paranoia.
What Happens if PTSD Symptoms Come Back?
If you experience PTSD symptoms because of a retraumatization event, you may become discouraged. However, many cases of retraumatization are temporary and your symptoms can go away quickly. If you’ve been through treatment and you’ve learned effective coping skills, or if you’ve gotten through acute PTSD symptoms in the past, retraumatization doesn’t mean you’re back to square one. However, a reemergence of symptoms that start to disrupt your life may mean that you will need to seek out treatment for PTSD. If you’ve already gone through treatment, you will have a foundation of coping skills that you can revisit in treatment. Sometimes treatment for retraumatization will just involve speaking to your therapist about your coping strategies and adapting to new symptoms or triggers.
How Is PTSD Treated?
PTSD can be a frustrating and frightening disorder, but it’s one that can be effectively treated. Treatment can help you overcome some of the issues that are getting in the way of your life, life panic attacks or avoidance behavior. PTSD treatment often involves talk therapy, especially behavioral therapies. Working with a therapist can help you open up about your PTSD symptoms.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common option for many mental and behavioral health issues. CBT may involve a process of identifying triggers and learning ways to cope with them more effectively. You may participate in group therapy sessions, which can help you understand PTSD from the perspective of other people. Group therapy can also help you feel less isolated as you manage the disorder.
There are some specific talk therapy techniques for treating PTSD, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR therapy involves talking about a traumatic event while you are distracted in some way. This usually involves following an object with your eyes as it moves back and forth.
If you have anxiety or depression symptoms, you may be treated with an SSRI medication to help control those symptoms while you go through therapy.