What is psychological trauma?

Very stressful, frightening and distressing events can cause psychological trauma or PTSD. Psychological trauma can lead to upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away even after months or years after the event. It can also leave you feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people. When bad things happen, it can take a while to get over the pain and feel safe again.

Is psychological trauma a mental illness?

If you experienced a traumatic event and struggle to forget about it, you are likely to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to diagnostic manuals used by psychiatrists to diagnose people with mental illness, PTSD is a type of mental illness. It is classified as a type of anxiety disorder. PTSD was first recognised in war veterans, but anyone could get it irrespective of their age or life experiences. Depending on the severity of your symptoms and their impact on your daily life, you may be diagnosed with mild, moderate or severe PTSD. There are also different types of PTSD:

  • Delayed-onset PTSD – if your symptoms emerge more than six months after experiencing trauma.
  • Complex PTSD – if you experienced trauma at an early age or it lasted for a long time.
  • Birth trauma – PTSD that develops after a traumatic experience of childbirth is also known as ‘birth trauma’.
  • Secondary trauma – if you experience some PTSD symptoms while supporting someone close to you who’s experienced trauma.

What causes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

There is no single cause of PTSD. A range of events could result in someone developing psychological trauma, such as:

  • a car accident
  • sexual, physical and emotional abuse
  • extreme violence or war, including military combat
  • surviving a natural disaster or a terrorist attack
  • being kidnapped or held hostage
  • seeing other people hurt or killed
  • ongoing stress and hardship, such as living in a crime-ridden neighbourhood

In practice, any significantly stressful experience can cause PTSD. Some factors may make you more likely to develop PTSD or may make the problems you experience more severe. For example, if you have experienced depression or anxiety in the past or have little or no support from friends, family or professionals. Having to deal with extra stress at the same time, such as bereavement or money worries, could also make you more likely to develop PTSD.

What are the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Each person’s experience of PTSD is unique to them. You might have experienced a similar type of trauma to someone else, yet be affected in different ways. There are several symptoms that you may experience, both physical and psychological, and some of the most common ones include:

  • Vivid flashbacks like feeling that the trauma is happening right now
  • Nightmares
  • Intrusive thoughts or images, which make you feel like you are reliving aspects of what happened
  • Panic attacks (extreme worry that you are about to die)
  • Feeling on edge or being hypervigilant
  • Being unable to trust others
  • Feeling angry, sad, guilty or ashamed
  • Being emotionally and physically numb
  • Physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling
  • Disturbed or lack of sleep
  • Finding it difficult to concentrate
  • Irritability or aggressive behaviour
  • Using alcohol or drugs to avoid memories

What are the treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

There is a range of treatments available for PTSD and psychological trauma, including psychological therapy, medication and ‘watchful waiting’.

Psychological Therapy for PTSD

  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT). This is a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) specifically adapted for PTSD. Typically you would be offered 8 to 12 sessions of around 60–90 minutes, at least once a week. There is extensive research supporting the use of TF-CBT for PTSD.
  • Prolonged Exposure (PE). This therapy is also based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It teaches a gradual approach of reducing the stress associated with memories, situations and feelings associated with the traumatic memories. Similar to TF-CBT, Prolonged exposure has been extensively researched, and there is significant evidence that it can be helpful.
  • Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). This is a fairly new treatment that can reduce PTSD symptoms, such as being easily startled. It involves making rhythmic eye movements while recalling the traumatic event, including negative thoughts, beliefs and associated bodily sensations. The aim of this is to access the difficult memories that have been pushed aside. EMDR has not been researched as extensively as TF-CBT and PE. However, there is developing evidence that it can be equally helpful for psychological trauma.

Medication for PTSD

People experiencing PTSD are not routinely prescribed medication. However, you might be offered medication if you also experience depression, have sleep problems caused by PTSD or are unable or unwilling to try talking treatments. Antidepressants, such as paroxetine, mirtazapine or amitriptyline, are typical medications offered for this condition. These medications help ease some of the symptoms of PTSD

Watchful waiting for PTSD

If you have had PTSD symptoms for less than four weeks or they are relatively mild, you can try ‘watchful waiting’. This involves monitoring your symptoms to see if things improve. In this case, you are likely to be offered a follow-up appointment within one month.

Apart from the treatments mentioned above, you could try other strategies that others have found helpful. Some of those strategies involve mindful breathing, staying in contact with friends or family, relaxation, exercise, and eating a well-balanced diet.

Can I recover from psychological trauma?

Yes, trauma normally resolves without treatment over time. Regardless of whether the trauma happened years ago or yesterday, you can get the healing you need and move on with your life. The treatments and strategies mentioned in this article have been shown to help people recover from trauma.

If you need help with treatment of psychological trauma and PTSD in Birmingham Solihull or the City of London, Dr Nick can help you.