Tackling Trauma: The Rise of Civilian PTSD and How We Can Combat It

  • Trauma and PTSD, despite misconceptions, is common among civilians and veterans alike
  • PTSD is actually our brain's way of ensuring our survival and preventing another traumatic event from happening.
  • Prevention is key when it comes to trauma.
  • Children too can experience trauma, and can have similar symptoms as adults for the rest of their lives.
  • However, there is hope. Trauma and PTSD can still be treated through different therapies like CBT and EDMR.

When you think of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, the first thing that probably comes to mind is an image of a beleaguered combat veteran ravaged by memories of war or a terrified soldier cowering from memories of a past that is all too present. You may think of an infantryman triggered into flashbacks by the sound of Fourth of July fireworks.

The shared circuitry of the hippocampus-amygdala and their very close proximity to one another in the deep brain means that a memory-emotion loop is created that overrides all rational thought.

But you don’t have to be a veteran to have experienced trauma or at war to experience PTSD. In fact, post-traumatic stress disorder is a common condition for civilians and soldiers alike.

Civilian PTSD

It’s currently estimated that nearly 70% of all adults have experienced at least one trauma in their lifetimes. This can be direct trauma such a car crash, natural disaster, or physical or sexual assault, but it can also be indirect, as when you witness an attack or the death or injury of someone else.

The trauma can also be acute, meaning it is a one-time event, such as a tornado or a house fire, or it can be complex, meaning that the stressors are multi-layered and long-lasting, such as the trauma of extreme financial stress which might lead to housing or food insecurity.

Elephant’s Memory

Whatever the cause or type of trauma, the brain doesn’t forget. That’s not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s evolution’s way of protecting us and ensuring our survival. When we experience an extreme threat to ourselves or someone we love, that memory is doubly-encoded in our brain. Both the hippocampus and the amygdala record those events in the deepest and most primitive structures of the brain.

These structures aren’t just for storing memory, however. They’re also the seat of emotion, especially strong emotions like fear. That accounts for both the physiological and the psychological effects of PTSD from hyperarousal to depression and anxiety.

The shared circuitry of the hippocampus-amygdala and their very close proximity to one another in the deep brain means that a memory-emotion loop is created that overrides all rational thought. This loop hijacks the brain’s higher-order processing. Its executive function. That’s why victims of PTSD often experience cognitive effects including difficulty in concentrating, especially when they are in the throes of an attack.

Prevention as Cure?

While we can’t possibly prevent every traumatic thing that might happen, we can at least stop some of them. Prevention is central to ending imposed trauma by striking at the roots of violence in the first place. That might include things like enhanced mental healthcare and improved education and socioeconomic opportunities to end the poverty and addiction that so often lead to violence and trauma.

But it’s not just our communities, our city streets, or even our homes that we need to think about when it comes to preventing imposed trauma. The workplace, incredibly, can be one of the most emotionally challenging places for women to be, specifically. Studies show that more than 80% of women have experienced sexual harassment and 38% of such harassment happened in the workplace. This harassment includes not only unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate comments but also unsolicited touching and even assault.

But despite how ubiquitous sexual harassment is in the workplace, it’s estimated that less than a third of victims actually report it, despite stringent state and federal laws designed to prevent such crimes and protect their victims. This helps to perpetuate a culture of sexual violence. It creates the conditions for trauma.

As painful as PTSD is, it does not have to be a life sentence.

Lost Innocence

As much as we like to think of childhood as a time of innocence and joy, far too many children have also experienced trauma, and just like adults, children who have experienced trauma are at risk of developing PTSD.

If left untreated, the effects of PTSD in children can be devastating. Like adults, children with PTSD will almost inevitably experience anxiety and depression as well as insomnia and sleep disturbances. They may withdraw from loved ones or stop participating in activities they once enjoyed. All of these are signs that your child may need professional help in dealing with their trauma so they can move on to build the healthy, happy, and successful life they deserve.

Help is Out There

As painful as PTSD is, it does not have to be a life sentence. There are a range of highly effective treatment options to help you find peace. One of the most effective is the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). With CBT, you can learn to recognize, understand, and, best of all, to manage your thought patterns. This will help to reduce the likelihood that your PTSD symptoms will be triggered.

There are also very promising treatments that actually appear to alter the way the brain works. It does this by breaking that destructive memory/emotion circuit in the deep brain structures. For instance, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR) is a treatment that uses rapid eye movement to retrain the brain so that it will not trigger PTSD-related responses.

The Takeaway

Live long enough and you’ll know that life brings its own battles. Surviving often requires a warrior’s spirit even if we never step foot in a combat zone. We will all experience trauma at some point in our lives. From violence and poverty to illness and accidents, none of us goes through life completely unscathed. What matters is how we deal with our traumas. That includes learning to recognize the signs of PTSD in ourselves, loved ones, and even our children, and having the courage to deal with it. The power to fight through our past to claim our future.

Featured Image Source: Pixabay

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Frankie Wallace

Frankie Wallace is a recent graduate from the University of Montana. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and enjoys writing about topics related to business, marketing, and technology.

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