Writer Research: PTSD

Soldier’s heart, shell shock, battle fatigue; there have been many names for the condition we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Regardless of what we call it, PTSD has always been life changing for both the victim and their loved ones.

There are several things you should consider when writing a character with PTSD:

  • What was the cause?
  • What combination of symptoms do they have?
  • What help will they receive (if any)?

Whatever the circumstances, recovery is a long, difficult road a person may have to walk several times throughout their life. Research can help you determine what your character’s roadmap might look like.

Causes

Physical symptoms of PTSD occur when the brain increases blood flow to other parts of the body to deal with pain or stress, leading to decreased blood for the brain itself. But, as one might expect, traumatic events are the root cause of PTSD. What constitutes a traumatic event and the likelihood that PTSD will result varies from person-to-person and event-to-event. An individual may develop the disorder as a result of their own traumatic experience or someone else’s.

Intentional acts of violence are more likely to cause PTSD than natural disasters. Physical/sexual traumas are among the most common causes, followed closely by domestic and/or childhood abuse. Significant events involving one’s body/health (childbirth, surgery, heart attack) can lead to PTSD – caregivers can even show symptoms after tending someone with a long-term illness.

Prolonged abuse can result in Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which distorts the victim’s core identity. This variant is most frequently found in those who experience repeated mistreatment as children.

Signs and Symptoms

There are many possible effects of PTSD. For an official diagnosis, a patient must have symptoms from each of the following categories:

Avoidance

Sufferers try to avoid anything that reminds them of their trauma. For instance, someone who was in a car accident may choose to walk or stay-at-home. They might also steer clear of people, places, and activities that remind them of the event.

Awareness/Reactivity

Constant alertness that results in being “on edge” or “jumpy” is a common symptom. Other signs in this category are sleeplessness, loss of concentration, indecisiveness, irritability, and difficulty maintaining relationships. Victims may feel detached from their life and lose interest in everyday activities.

Cognition/Mood

Misplaced guilt and shame are common effects of PTSD. Other symptoms include depression, anxiety, and paranoia. Sufferers often seek to numb their emotions by withdrawing from life. They may turn to alcohol or drugs and/or have suicidal thoughts.

Reliving the event

Victims are likely to re-experience their trauma through nightmares and flashbacks. These and other triggers may also cause severe physical reactions such as palpitations, panic attacks, or chills. Accompanying physical symptoms are common, especially if the person is trying to suppress thoughts or memories of the trauma. Headaches, dizziness, fatigue, chest pain, breathing trouble, and/or stomach problems may occur.

Children and Trauma

Teens and children may experience different symptoms than adults. Those less than 6 years of age may refuse to be separated from a guardian, act out their trauma while playing, lose the ability to speak, or wet the bed after being potty trained.

The older the child, the more likely they are to experience adult symptoms. They may also develop rebellious tendencies and disruptive or destructive behaviors. Older children and teens can often have survivor’s guilt – they may even have persistent thoughts of revenge if their symptoms are the result of violence or abuse.

Treatment

Medication and psychotherapy can help control the symptoms of PTSD, but the most effective treatments often involve confronting the trauma. These methods are typically used in conjunction with other therapies.

Common treatments for PTSD:

  • Virtual Reality Therapy re-exposes a person to traumatic events in a controlled environment where they are safe from any real danger.
  • Therapy Animals, usually dogs, provide emotional and physical support to their owners.
  • White Noise can help calm hyper-alertness and promote healthy sleep.
  • Soldiers Who Salsa is one of many programs aimed at involving veterans in social activities that can help them cope.
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy involves describing one’s trauma repeatedly and in detail in frequent sessions with a therapist.
  • Methylene Blue is a drug sometimes used in conjunction with exposure therapies as it helps the brain process the experiences more quickly.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses rhythmic audio, visual, or tactile stimulation to help process traumatic memories.
  • Meditation can help the victim control their body’s responses to their trauma. It can also make it easier for them to process their experiences.
  • First-Line Treatments can be helpful when they take place immediately after a traumatic event. Both counseling and playing Tetris have been shown to reduce future symptoms.
  • There are many treatments that are still considered experimental but may prove effective in the future. These include Magnetic Resonance Therapy and MDMA (Ecstasy).

Things to Remember

  • War veterans are not the only sufferers. People from all walks of life can be victims of PTSD.
  • Symptoms might not show up until years after the trauma and may also subside or recur on their own.
  • Animals can also suffer from PTSD. This disorder affects 5% of military service dogs.
  • Thought suppression does more harm than good. Trying to avoid triggers can actually cause the victim to think about their trauma more often.

Though Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a common topic these days, its status as a legitimate affliction is relatively new. Our understanding is still developing, and studies bring new treatment options each year.

Check out this article and the books below for some personal accounts of PTSD:

Author: Dee

Dee is a moderator and blogger for Story Scribes. In her downtime she tries out various crafts, plays video games, and makes music. Currently, she’s working on a fantasy story that’s been trying to escape for a few years.

6 thoughts on “Writer Research: PTSD”

  1. Dee, I am a former mental health professional, and I must say, this post is extremely thorough and well-written. I like the fact that you ended with the statement that PTSD is finally being seen as legitimate mental health conditions, and it can affect people from all walks of life. I was just reading the other day that many new studies are being done related to C-PTSD, which can develop when individuals endure repeated/prolonged abuse.

    Well done!

    1. Thanks for the compliment, I’m so glad to hear it! I did see that C-PTSD will be added to the ICD-11 codebook so that’s an important step towards recognizing the conditions and supporting people who develop them.

  2. I’m with crshore! I’m definitely more knowledgable about the medication side of PTSD, so I look forward to looking into the links for non-pharmacological therapy you provided for us.

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