A major source of anxiety for many of us occurs after experiencing some traumatic event. Normally, we think of horrendous events like rape, physical attacks, divorce, combat, car accidents, anything resulting in severe injury or property loss, etc. There are also, however, more subtle traumas in life, like serving on a death penalty jury, watching live events unfold on TV, flunking a driver’s test, being criticized by your boss, being “unfriended” on social media, etc. Theoretically, anything that gets you all stressed out and feeling anxious can potentially lead to post traumatic stress difficulties, what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
Here’s the question: Are you likely to develop PTSD after you experience anxiety-arousing situations? Just the thought of developing a psychological “disorder” is enough to plunge you into anxiety, right? Well, relax because not everyone is vulnerable to PTSD, and even if you are, there are many techniques to help you deal with this type of anxiety.
Here are some of the things we know. If you have a history of psychiatric disorders in your family, you are likely more prone to PTSD. That increased vulnerability also exists if you experienced harsh childhood trauma like sexual abuse, or extreme psychological abuse like parental abandonment or rejection. Just as physical injuries leave the body vulnerable to later injury, so, too, do early psychological scars leave one vulnerable to later stress.
Some people have oversensitive nervous systems. Do you respond more intensely to loud noises, pain, and unexpected events? Do you easily become uncomfortable in new and strange environments? If so, not surprisingly, you are probably at higher risk of having PTSD following a traumatic event.
Are you one of those with a somewhat unrealistic view of the world? Have you lived a relatively sheltered, stress-free life? Do you believe adversity and danger primarily affects others, not you? If so, you’re probably ill-prepared for processing stress and trauma, and being able to confront and meet challenges. If a trauma occurs, you are likely to react with catastrophic thinking such as, “My world has ended,” a type of thinking that encourages anxiety problems and, by the way, PTSD.
“OK, great,” you say, “I fit a lot of those profiles. What can I do to make PTSD less likely in my life?”
Well, if you have an extensive and supportive social network, you will be much better equipped to handle trauma than are those who are isolated and feel lonely. Obviously, you have to be prepared to face the trauma squarely, not avoid it, but if you have the psychological support of others, you’re in a lot better shape.
If you have training about what to do when faced with trauma, you will fare better than those who don’t. Soldiers undergo extensive training before they are sent into combat; school children have drills to help them deal with emergency situations; some women take courses in self-defense to prepare themselves in case of personal attack. These and other types of preparation can give you a sense of control over the unexpected, and help you when the unexpected happens.
One thing for sure, when trauma strikes, PTSD is not inevitable. You can cope effectively with the excessive stress and anxiety and go on with your life. The coping principles we develop in this blog all come into play when you need to confront anxiety. In the context of PTSD, it is important for you not to accept any message that says exposure to a traumatic event will automatically make you fall apart. If you’re prepared, and have the confidence that comes with feeling empowered, you won’t disintegrate in the face of adversity. Consider the following exchange:
Interviewer: “Why are you so stressed?”
You: “I’m worried that since suffering that stressful event, I’m going to develop PTSD.”
What could be worse than developing a stress disorder because you’re worrying about developing a stress disorder? You have set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophesy.
And then there’s the problem with the “PTSD” label itself, because it includes the word “disorder.” Having to deal with stress is one thing; having to deal with a psychological disorder is more frightening because “disorder” and “mental illness” go hand in hand for most people.
The progression of thinking is simple: “A disorder is an illness; if I get a disorder, I have an illness. I suffered some trauma. If I get PTSD, I will be mentally ill.” This sort of thinking will make it easier for you to suffer excessive stress following trauma, putting you in a vicious cycle leading once again to a self-fulfilling prophesy: Suffering trauma causes you to worry about developing mental illness, which brings you more stress, which causes you to worry about having a mental disorder, which increases your stress, which…..well, you get the idea.
In the context of everyday life stresses, when you think of PTSD, why don’t you just delete the “D” and think of “post-traumatic stress”? If you suffer a traumatic event, let’s say your 13-year old son is arrested for shoplifting, you may indeed have some bad dreams, experience trouble falling asleep, have difficulty concentrating at work, finding yourself losing your temper more easily, experiencing anxiety when sonny-boy is late getting home, etc., etc. Those symptoms, however, do not mean you have a psychological disorder or that you’re mentally ill; they mean you’re understandably stressed, and you must confront those aspects of the situation causing you stress that are under your control.
When thinking of PTSD, just keep things in the context of our important themes: If you are professionally diagnosed, do not choose to “live your diagnosis” and use it to form your personal pity party; focus on what you can control; determine what you need to accept; formulate a plan of action; and keep lines of communication open with your support group.