Because of the strong association of post-traumatic stress with the recent wars, most people think of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a wartime-related illness. However, there are a far greater number of traumatic events in people's experiences than just those associated with war. Childhood sexual, physical, or emotional abuse can also result in PTSD. It is not an "all or nothing" phenomena.
What is PTSD all about, anyway?
When we experience a traumatic event that is just "too much" for us, our mind can take over and put the memory far back in a corner, away from our ready access to it. In fact, any highly threatening experience can cause an individual to react by blocking out its memory. This can happen for one event or a series of events over time. It is a defense mechanism to keep us from becoming more overwhelmed by the experience than we can stand at that moment.
However, all is not well. The memory is still there...somewhere. It has gone "underground" in our psychological make-up, and it can affect us in profound ways. We may tend to avoid situations that remind us of the original event, though we may not know why. We may have nightmares. We may be unable to form romantic or sexual relationships, or be unable to participate in activities that are important to us.
This blocking of the memory may not be complete. Small or large fragments may bubble up in our minds at times, and we may become "numbed out" or go into panic. Some people are feel somewhat emotionally numb on a routine basis. Problems with alcohol or drugs may develop in an attempt to hold these disturbing memories at a distance.
Sexual abuse is an experience that can cause this phenomena to occur. Abuse like this is a highly threatening experience, especially for children. Their bodies and their emotional make-ups are violated, and they have no way of coping with the feelings that result. Many children block out these memories. Though there has been much controversy in recent years about the accuracy of memories that are recalled years later, there is no doubt in the minds of most therapists that the memories have some sort of very real basis.
When memories are recalled, they are often recalled as suddenly as they were put away years before. In fact, in some cases it's as if a motion picture were stopped...and then started up again...picking up the original scene as if no time has passed.
When this occurs the body often reacts by restarting its original response to the trauma also. Blood may rush to the scene of a previous wound, hot and cold sensations may occur, and physical pain may be experienced. The emotions and sensations of the original experience may be recalled in a "flashback" during which the person feels that the original event is actually happening at the moment.
Of course, no one wants to reexperience trauma such as this. However, there are ways in which the life-limiting effects of post-traumatic stress can be addressed while minimizing the likelihood of excessive disturbances. The pain of not recovering from trauma can ultimately be much worse than the process of its resolution.
Treatment must be guided gently to promote the increasing stability thoughts and feelings: support networks need to be developed, and skills in working with feelings must be taught. A client has the right to direct the speed at which their concerns are addressed...no one should be forced to address any past memory. Sometimes an individual needs help to stabilize all of the crises in his or her life before actually beginning to work of the trauma itself. A bit of good work at the beginning can make a world of difference down the line.
The book listed in the left column above by Babette Rothschild is a good one for PTSD survivors. If you are afflicted by this, give it a read.
What about diagnosis and treatment?
Self-diagnosis is not a good idea for most medical or psychological situations. However, the following is presented to offer you an understanding of the "official" diagnostic description of PTSD by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistics Manual-IV. If you have concerns about yourself, then you should consult a professional. PTSD is serious and you should receive treatment by someone trained to offer it.
Eye Movement Desentization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a treatment that has become quite accepted in the treatment of trauma. It originally involved using deliberate eye movements of both eyes to facilitate the review and reprocessing of troublesome memories.
Since that time other movements have become recognized as helpful...hand taps on knees, etc. The strengths of EMDR include the ability to reprocess memories that are otherwise overwhelming--at a rate that is much quicker than other forms of treatment.
There are a number of elements included in successful EMDR, including the use of imagery techniques to distance oneself from the remembered trauma, the careful selection of positive (but reasonable) thoughts to replace alarming/negative ones, and the use of an imagined "safe place" if the memory becomes too threatening.
I have been trained in this process and find it to be a very effective way to make progress at a rate that is often much faster (and less stressful) than older forms of therapy.