Do I Have PTSD? Understanding Signs and Symptoms and When to Seek Help
Do I have PTSD? This question haunts millions of Americans each year. If you suspect you are suffering from PTSD, there can be great power in naming your distress and developing a language for expressing the traumas you have endured. By understanding PTSD diagnostic criteria, you can better identify if it’s time to seek help and start your journey toward recovery.
“I can’t tell you when my PTSD symptoms started. They’ve been a part of my life in some form as long as I remember,” says Veronica. “I always had difficulty concentrating, emotional volatility, horrible dreams. I always avoided anything that reminded me of my abuse.”
Now 37, Veronica had spent much of her life in a state of fear. The abuse she endured at the hands of her father as a child left her with deep psychological scars that permeated every aspect of her life, long after she left home. She spent her teens and early 20s dressing modestly so as not to attract the attention of men. She struggled to form meaningful relationships; trusting another person was virtually unimaginable to her. She flinched at loud noises and couldn’t take the subway for fear of someone standing a little too close to her.
“My PTSD directed my thoughts, my actions, my beliefs for two decades. But it didn’t even occur to me to stop and ask, ‘Do I have PTSD?’ I thought, ‘That’s just my personality, that’s just what happens after someone is abused,’” Veronica tells me. “Then when I was 31, I began dating a wonderful man who saw through all these behaviors. He showed me a book—it was called I Can’t Get Over It—and I recognized myself immediately. To put a name to what I was experiencing and learn I didn’t have to feel that way anymore—it was revolutionary to me. It opened up a new world.”
Naming Your Distress
Being able to name your condition can be profoundly powerful. It gives you a language for understanding your experience and solid ground on which you can begin the recovery process. Many people, however, suffer from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) without knowing that their distress has a name. You may confuse your symptomatology with normal reactions to traumatic events, despite the debilitating role those symptoms play in your life. You may be too ashamed to admit how trauma has affected you, believing that its effects are signs of weakness. Or perhaps you think that your trauma wasn’t bad enough to warrant PTSD in the first place. But correctly naming your distress and seeing it for what it is the first step toward healing.
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The Broad Range of Trauma
PTSD can arise out of a broad range of traumas. Although most commonly associated with war veterans, the illness can affect anyone who has experienced trauma of some kind, including sexual violence, intimate partner violence, natural disasters, serious accidents, or criminal victimization. The nature of the trauma itself may inform the specifics of your disorder, but it does not determine whether or not you have it in the first place; you do not have to have experienced a lifetime of abuse, a violent rape, or a terrorist attack to develop PTSD. Some people develop the disorder after less seemingly overt traumas, such as car accidents, witnessing abuse, or exposure to other people’s traumatic events. Additionally, PTSD does not have an expiration date; you may feel that your trauma happened too long ago to be connected to what you are currently experiencing, but PTSD can develop at any time, even years after the triggering event.
Do I Have PTSD? Diagnostic Criteria
So how do you know if you have PTSD? The diagnostic criteria for PTSD are extensive and may present differently in each person. These include:
The most common form of re-experiencing typically associated with PTSD are flashbacks. “In an explicit flashback, the person is involuntarily transported back in time [to a moment of trauma],” says social worker Tom Bunn. “What they experience is being experienced as if it were happening in the present.” However, you do not have to experience explicit flashbacks in order for PTSD to be present; Intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and emotional or physical triggering in response to reminders of trauma are also forms of re-experiencing.
People with PTSD seek to avoid reminders of the trauma itself as well as feelings and thoughts related to the trauma. Some will avoid particular places, people, or situations, such as not wanting to ride in an elevator, drive down a certain road, hear a particular song, or be touched in a specific way. The shape this takes is highly individual and depends on each person’s situation.
Negative Thoughts, Feelings, and Affect
Negative thoughts, feelings, and affect come in a wide variety of presentations. As the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says, these include “persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world (e.g. ‘I am bad,’ ‘No one can be trusted,’ ‘The world is completely dangerous’).” You may experience deep and unwarranted self-blame, fear, and shame. PTSD can also cause you to lose interest in things you used to enjoy and have difficulty experiencing joy, hope, or meaningful social connections.
Arousal and Reactivity
People with PTSD live in a traumatic state that perpetuates long after the moment of trauma has passed. As such, your responses to emotional and physical stimuli become heightened. You psychologically stand on guard; you may develop exaggerated startle responses, have difficulty concentrating, experience sleep disturbances, and become hypervigilant. At the same time, you may find that you are irritable, aggressive, and prone to engaging in risky or destructive behavior.
The way each person’s PTSD presents may be unique, but in order to be clinically diagnosable its symptoms must persist for at least one month and cause distress and functional impairment.
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Seeking PTSD Treatment
If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, the most important thing you can do is seek professional diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. A psychiatrist can administer the tests and clinical interviews necessary to determine whether or not you truly do have PTSD and create a treatment plan for you based on this diagnosis.
While many people with PTSD improve significantly with outpatient care, you may also want to consider residential PTSD treatment. In a residential treatment environment, you can participate in more therapy in 30 days than you could in a year of outpatient care, allowing for rapid relief of your psychological pain. Through a tailored curriculum of evidence-based therapies, you can safely explore your trauma with the support of compassionate clinicians and peers and develop meaningful strategies for recovery.
Ideally, your treatment should involve specialized trauma-focused therapies, such as EMDR and Somatic Experiencing, which have been specifically developed to help victims of trauma move beyond their traumatic histories and regain psychological control. By working intensively in a warm, intimate treatment program, you will be able to release yourself from the grip of trauma to create a new, more fulfilling life.
A diagnosis of PTSD may be frightening at first, even confusing. But ultimately, that diagnosis can bring you to a place of healing. “I cannot express to you the enormous relief I felt when I discovered my condition was real and treatable,” writes P.K. Philips, a survivor of multiple traumas in childhood and early adulthood. “I felt safe for the first time in 32 years. [Treatment] marked a turning point in my regaining control of my life. The world is new to me and not limited by the restrictive vision of anxiety. I’m no longer at the mercy of my disorder and I would not be here today had I not had the proper diagnosis and treatment. The most important thing to know is that it’s never too late to seek help.”
Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with PTSD and other mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs, and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.