This is what life is really like for people with PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions. When most people think of it, they imagine it's something suffered exclusively by shell-shocked veterans coming home from a long and terrifying tour of duty. Many people are content to dismiss anything that didn't come about as a direct experience on the front line as being "not true" PTSD. The reality, unfortunately, is a lot different. The truth is that anyone can be diagnosed with PTSD. whether they're old or young, idealistic or jaded, sensitive or hardened. Anyone can be vulnerable to overwhelming shock, terror and stress.
Many young people are struck with PTSD after they have the experience of living through an upsetting incident. The mental health charity Young Minds defines PTSD as something which "happens after you experience something extremely frightening, like violence, abuse, rape or a life-threatening situation. It can also affect you if you witnessed something terrible happening, such as a serious accident. Most people take time to get over a traumatic event, but in PTSD, you can't move past the event and carry on having dreams, flashbacks or upsetting thoughts about it." Everyone reacts to frightening experiences differently: some people are able to shrug it off easily, others need years before they can recover. But it's impossible to tell exactly how a person will react until the traumatic event has occurred.
The symptoms of PTSD manifest in a number of different ways, some physical, others internalised so deeply that they are difficult to openly articulate. First of all, as a result of the all-consuming anxiety brought about by PTSD, people with the condition may have higher rates of suicide and self-harm, according to a study published in the British Journal of Medicine. People with PTSD can also have an increased risk of experiencing additional health problems, including cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal as well as gastrointestinal and immunological disorders.
According to Young Minds, there are three common symptoms that can often affect people with the condition. First of all are the flashbacks: extremely vivid memories of the traumatic event in question, which are sometimes so detailed that they can take a person out of the present and throw them back into the same situation. The second is any display of major anxiety-avoidance tendencies. Maybe the person will make a concentrated effort to steer clear of phobias or stimuli that remind them of the trauma. Maybe they will attempt to keep their mind occupied to stop themselves from thinking about it, or turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve the pain. Lastly, someone experiencing PTSD might be continually tense after the event and be on guard in case they experience something traumatic again. Other symptoms can include anger and irritability, problems eating, nightmares, depression and difficulty sleeping.
To learn more about what PTSD means, I spoke with someone who had been through it. Tanisha Catt was diagnosed with PTSD after an incident three years ago, in which she was forced to defend her friend's home from an intruder in the middle of the night. Weeks passed, then months, and although Tanisha was physically unharmed, she couldn't stop flinching at sudden noises and replaying the scenario over and over in her head. At first, people admonished her for overreacting, and it took her a long time to pluck up enough courage to finally consult with a doctor in the spring of 2016.
Tanisha explains that life has been made more difficult for her as a result of her triggers - everyday occurrences which immediately remind her of the incident. She explained that "doors slamming, and other sudden loud noises in an otherwise quiet place" were capable of inducing intense panic. "If I'm in a dark room and hear that noise, my brain tells me, 'It's happening again, do something!'" She contiues: "You never feel safe, and it ruins things for you. PTSD is a self-feeding fear like that, and I wish someone had told me that moving to a quiet part of town would help starve it out."
Night is when Tanisha is most vulnerable. That's when everything - the eerie quiet, the darkness, the tiny noises which grease the wheels of paranoia - compounds to remind her of the time someone broke in. "If I'm not distracted, my brain puts the 'bad daydream' record back on the player," Tanisha explains. "I freeze up on the shop floor at work if someone drops something, and if someone raises their voice in a cinema or I hear a drunk person holler in the street at night, I feel like I can't move, or even think. I know from my traumatic event that I'm the type to run towards danger, but PTSD tells me I have to run away."
The trickle-down effect has touched almost every aspect of Tanisha's life. It's become something which she needs to plan her life around and adjust herself to. It makes no allowances for her and can strike at the worst possible time. "PTSD came for me in my final exam at uni," Tanisha told me. "One slammed door, and I was shaking too much to write and had to be moved to a quieter room. PTSD chose my flat, too - I needed to be on the top floor with high ceilings, to be as far away from other people's noises as I could. I've been slowly improving because of this choice, I think."
How can you help someone with PTSD? It can take a heavy toll on our relationships with people; but with trust and understanding, the difficulties it presents can be overcome. It's important to let the person with PTSD take the lead, and if they don't feel comfortable with a setting or situation then it's up to you to acknowledge that. Listen to what they say without judgement, but don't pressure them to discuss the trauma if they don't want to and stay aware of their symptoms. Be mindful of any triggers that might set them off: sights, sounds, or smells associated with the trauma, people, locations, or things that make them recall the incident, or significant dates such as the anniversary of the event. If someone is having a flashback or panic attack, take the time to try to calm them down and control their breathing. Remind them of where they are and keep them feeling safe and secure. It can be best to avoid touching them unless you have their consent, to give them space if they need it, and to avoid sudden movements.
PTSD affects everyone differently, but a little bit of awareness goes a long way. For more help and advice, visit Young Minds for a comprehensive look at the way PTSD affects young people in particular, and what you can do to help.
Written in collaboration with Young Minds