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From Traumatic Life Event to Mental Health Disorder

Raising PTSD awareness.

Ask most people what PTSD is, and they will likely tell you it’s a condition that war veterans often suffer from as a result of exposure to war. Much has been written, studied, and shared in popular culture about the war veteran's post-traumatic stress experience of flashbacks, nightmares, and constant anxiety. The American Psychological Association defines PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder as “an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident, or natural disaster.”

The vast majority of car accident patients that I treat display symptoms of post-traumatic stress and/or meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Depression and anxiety disorders are often precipitated or triggered by an experience of trauma. Traumatic events such as childhood or domestic abuse, an accident, being diagnosed with a debilitating health condition, sexual or physical assault, surviving a natural disaster, or losing a loved one can all lead to post-traumatic stress.

As we bravely continue our extensive efforts to move through the current pandemic, many people are experiencing high levels of anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The psychological effects of the pandemic are not unlike those of a natural disaster. Feelings of fear, loss, sadness, anger, irritability, depression, a sense of grief, and other difficulties are all too common. Some people who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 may also feel “survivor’s guilt.”

The global psychological fall-out attributed to the pandemic and the resulting mental health crisis is considerably worse than a natural disaster in many ways, as the traumatic event is ongoing. Given that manifestation of PTSD symptoms can be delayed—with only subtle signs appearing initially and severe symptoms appearing months, or in some cases even years, post-event—it’s important that we implement and focus on extra self-care and protective stress/anxiety reduction techniques now.

Beyond healing the psychological suffering that often comes with experiencing trauma, it’s crucial that we become more aware of the deleterious physical effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress on the brain and the body. We know there are structural changes in the brain that take place due to trauma and psychological stress. In my book on car accident recovery, I share that despite causation being problematic, modern brain research demonstrates changes in brain structures in patients with PTSD. The hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure deep within our brains involved in regulating emotion, motivation, learning, and memory, has been shown to have a reduced volume in both PTSD and TBI patients. We also know that trauma causes widespread inflammation in the body and can be a huge contributing factor to chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and other diseases later in life. With treatment, structural brain changes and body inflammation can be reversed.

In a recent Vogue article, the talented musical artist Jewel sheds light on the generational transmission of trauma as she shares her experience of childhood abuse and the resulting mental health challenges. She highlights that “hurt people hurt people” as she talks about the cycle of abuse in her family. With immense courage and resilience, she employed ways to process and overcome her trauma through utilizing writing, music, and attuning to visuals in her environment along with acute awareness of the sensations in her physical body. Allowing herself to experience being fully present in the moment helped her to heal and move through her psychological pain. Jewel recommends the practices of “putting mindfulness in motion” and “cultivating presence” for confronting and overcoming painful patterns that hinder mental and emotional well-being.

I commend the courageous, inspiring efforts of all trauma survivors suffering from post-traumatic stress. I know how challenging it can be to struggle with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, shame, guilt, and a sense of overwhelm and exhaustion from replaying a distressing experience in your mind.

As June is PTSD awareness month, my hope is to help increase awareness of the need for more available and easily accessible community mental health services for all post-traumatic stress sufferers, including those who may not fit the specific PTSD diagnostic criteria. If you are struggling to cope with trauma, stress, and anxiety, know that you are not alone. Please reach out for emotional support. Post-traumatic stress is treatable. Talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, EMDR, meditation, stress reduction, and mindfulness techniques can all help you take control of a traumatic experience and regain your emotional and mental balance.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Suggested Reading & Resources

APA. “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.” American Psychological Association.

James F. Zender, PhD (2020). Recovering from Your Car Accident. The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Jewel. “My Life’s Work Has Not Been About Music. It Has Been About Solving for Pain.” Vogue. May 27, 2021.

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