Traumatic events can happen to anyone, anywhere, from a sexual assault to the effects of world-wide terrorism. If you a have a traumatic experience, you may not realise the extent of your trauma until months, even years after the event and it may develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
At the end of September, Health Matters was joined by Consultant Clinical Psychologist Martina Mueller, who trains people in psychological therapies across the world and works within the trust’s specialist psychological services. Martina’s talk explained the ways people recover from traumatic events, including looking in detail at PTSD, how it develops and how to overcome it.
There are two ways people experience trauma, Martina explains: an event actually happening or the threat that this might happen. You may experience or witness the event or learn of it happening to someone else, which may cause you just as much distress. Many people who develop symptoms do so from repeated exposure to traumatic events, for instance paramedics and soldiers on the frontline.
But recognising when PTSD develops isn’t easy. Initial signs of trauma include disrupted sleep, nightmares and feeling frightened, all of which are normal and not necessarily diagnosable. If you’ve experienced a crisis before, for instance if a family member has died or your house has been flooded, you may remember spending the first weeks afterwards focusing on coping, probably with a support network of friends and family around you. It’s only after you have been able to deal with the short-term effects of the event that symptoms of PTSD might emerge, at a time when you may no longer have the support around you that you need.
As Martina explains, “it takes a while to put the world back together again” and your brain needs to process the event in order to make sense of it. When the two parts of the brain that process this fail to communicate, the experience is not able to translate to your autobiographical memory and instead the brain relives the event as it happened, with the same real and physical reactions such as sweating, claustrophobia and feeling frightened. In contrast, a happy memory like your first kiss or the birth of your child may make you smile and feel happy but the emotional sensory memory felt when it first happened will have faded.
We may think of PTSD as a “failure to recover”, a failure of the brain to store the memory in the right place. Seeing a clinical psychologist may enable you to talk and write about your experiences and help you overcome the disorder. “It’s all in the mind and it’s a case of doing mind marathons as opposed to physical ones,” one of Martina’s patients said. “Get to the pain barrier and keep on going until the pain eases.”
To access our psychological services, please contact your GP for a referral.