Nearly every person will experience some sort of traumatic event, after which it is normal to feel sad, hurt, lost or disconnected. Generally over time people are able to process the events and move on with life after some time, however, for a small percentage of people, they may develop problems with what psychologists call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD occurs when a person finds a traumatic event difficult to overcome because the distressing memories, sensations and emotions associated with the event continue to intrude in their day-to-day life. Often people who experience PTSD will consciously or unconsciously decide to avoid certain people, objects, sensations (e.g. sounds, smells) or environments that have some association with the trauma in order to decrease the occurrence of flashbacks and other painful experiences. These patterns of avoidance often cause a great deal of interference in daily functioning and wellbeing.

Events that can lead a person to develop problems with PTSD are:

  • War
  • Natural disasters
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Death of a loved one
  • Assault
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Severe physical or emotional neglect

People can develop PTSD after being a direct victim of a traumatic event, or after witnessing the event or another person being victimised. Such events can leave people feeling hopeless, helpless, unsafe and shocked. These feelings are understandable reactions to such an event; however, they usually subside within a few months following the event. When they do not subside, they are classified as a disorder.

Along with the stress and anxiety following a traumatic event, other reactions PTSD sufferers will usually show include:

  • Flashbacks and intrusive memories of the event
  • Hallucinations
  • Dreams and nightmares
  • Intense distress when reminded of the event
  • Certain physical reactions reminding them of the event (increased heart rate, increased breathing, nausea, etc.)
  • Avoiding the event location and other triggers associated with the event (e.g. similar-looking people, places and objects that were present at the time of the trauma)
  • Loss of interest in general activities
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Being easily startled

The treatment method most commonly used to treat PTSD is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT aims to help the sufferer to shift how they think about the traumatic experience. The goal is to show how their negative thoughts about the situation may make their symptoms more severe or frequent. CBT aims to challenge the negative thoughts and return to a more balanced view of the situation – usually placing the event in the overall context of the person’s life and situation.

An important aspect of CBT for PTSD is exposure therapy, which aims to expose the client in verbal and physical ways to their images, thoughts and feelings in relation to the trauma. Exposure therapy aims to desensitise the sufferer to their distressing responses to the trauma. By doing this, those who suffer from PTSD can learn that the traumatic event is over and is simply one time-limited, distressing event that occurred in the overall context of life. Placing the event in perspective in this way aims to reduce the duration and intensity of the negative reactions they have to their memory of event, as well as their sense of safety in the present and future.

Another approach to treating PTSD is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Though it is less establish than CBT, there is still a great deal of evidence suggesting its effectiveness for treating the disorder. ACT views pain and suffering as normal parts of the human experience, so trying to avoid trauma-related situations and people that may trigger distress will only lead to frustration and unhappiness. Instead of trying to reduce the distressing thoughts, images and emotions, ACT aims to gain flexibility in thinking. Like CBT, it exposes the sufferer to the trauma-related triggers, but with the aim of assisting them in moving towards values and goals despite the distress they experience, rather than reducing symptoms. This, in turn, can teach the client that they have a choice in how to respond to distress – feelings do not need to dictate their decisions and actions.

Finding assistance

If you live in the Canberra region and you believe you may be experiencing difficulties with PTSD, you can contact Strategic Psychology to arrange to see a psychologist. We can assist you in identifying the issues that are contributing to maintaining your difficulties and recommend strategies that draw on your strengths and passions in order to achieve optimal social, emotional and occupational functioning.

No referral is required in order to see one of our psychologists, however, you can contact your GP for a referral under Medicare (if eligible) to receive a rebate on services provided