Written by Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer
June 27th was PTSD awareness day, and June was PTSD awareness month! PTSD is complicated. Often, we solely associate being traumatized from war, battle, or massive, explosive violence. And it is certainly linked with those things. But it’s easy to forget that one in eleven people will develop PTSD in their lifetime. Read that again, one in eleven! We forget that women are twice as likely as men to experience PTSD and that U.S. Latinos, Black Americans, and Native Americans are disproportionately affected (“What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?”).
PTSD occurs when someone has experienced a particularly traumatic event, which could fall under an array of categories: “natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or experiencing the threat of death, sexual violence or serious injury.” This could mean directly experiencing such events, or repeatedly, indirectly being exposed to trauma. For example, a first responder being exposed to horrific details of accidents or abuse cases, or someone learning about the violent death of someone they’re close to (“What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?”).
When someone experiences PTSD, they might be reliving aspects of the trauma vividly. When reminders of trauma appear in the mind out of nowhere, this is called intrusion. But the experience can be inconsistent. Some moments of the trauma might pierce through to be vividly relived. Other memories might be repressed, leaving holes in someone’s recollection of the traumatic event. With PTSD, this is often specifically verbal memory (as opposed to visual memory).
As a result, people with PTSD may acutely avoid triggers or things that remind them of trauma for fear of having to relive the experience through intrusive memories. And, PTSD can cause significant behavioral disruptions, like irritability, outbursts, reckless or self-destructive behavior, and/or disrupted sleep patterns (“What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”).
PTSD can also have different effects depending on which stage of brain development the trauma occurs. PTSD isn’t just struggling to cope. Experiencing trauma is thought to affect brain chemistry. For example, the hippocampus, which is the main center for memory storage, has been found to be very sensitive to high levels of stress, which is induced by trauma. Meanwhile, differing types of trauma (depression in young children, sexual assault victims, childhood neglect, etc.) were shown to cause various abnormal levels of cortisol production. Cortisol is one of the main chemicals that governs fight or flight instincts or stress responses (Bremner).
That said, effective treatments and therapies have been developed for treating PTSD. When dealt with early, traumatic memories are easier to treat with therapy. Among a multitude of medicines, antidepressants have been found effective, because the chemicals in antidepressants promote nerve growth in the hippocampus whereas stress inhibits growth (Bremner).
Remember, PTSD is not exclusive to war. People you see in the grocery store, online, and in your family may be fighting wars of all kinds, and sensitivity to this is of utmost importance.
“What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?” Edited by Felix Torres, What Is PTSD?, American Psychiatric Association, Aug. 2020, http://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd.
Bremner, J Douglas. “Traumatic stress: effects on the brain.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 8,4 (2006): 445-61. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner