In an interview with 60 Minutes news Correspondent Bill Whitaker, Sgt. First Class John Zehring described his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as being, “…like having a monster on your back that controls your entire life.”
Sgt. Zehring spent 15 months in the eastern province of Afghanistan fighting off daily attacks from the Taliban. Sgt. Zehring was exposed to what medical professionals might call complex PTSD, which is prolonged and/or repeated exposure to trauma. However, Sgt. Zehring’s self-described monster doesn’t come in a one size fits all, simple PTSD can arise after just a single traumatic experience.
Symptoms associated with having simple PTSD from a singular event usually include feelings of fear and helplessness, and a combination of behaviors that involve avoidance, confusion, and shock. Those with complex PTSD will have similar symptoms but might also have persistent changes in personality, an inability to relate to others, a loss of identity, and difficulty with decision-making. Some individuals might not display these symptoms, but may have other clinical symptoms such as anxiety and depression, and are easily prone to substance-abuse.
Whether simple or complex, PTSD is caused by traumas that can range from a loss, a near death experience, injury, sexual assault, abuse, neglect, and violence. More importantly, these monsters aren’t only carried on the backs of our military and veterans. All types of people across all ages, including children, can be affected by PTSD.
There is an overwhelming amount of evidence from studies reporting that women are also twice as likely to develop PTSD than men, despite having generally fewer overall traumas. Sexual abuse and violence were the major causes for PTSD among a majority of women, usually stemming from childhood traumas. Nevertheless, men, women and children all suffer from this sometimes paralyzing mental health condition.
On a brighter note, there is a growing amount of awareness being raised around the subject of mental health. For instance, the #TimeToChange campaign is a movement that started in England in 2007 as an effort to end discrimination around mental health. They report that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. They advocate that even though most will say they’re fine, asking whether someone is okay, twice, can go along way. Having strong social networks is one of the key ways to help those with mental health problems, and decrease the stigma around having them.
Alongside a strong social network, there is a growing number of therapies that help treat the symptoms of PTSD. The most common treatments include Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE). CPT will teach you new ways to think about your trauma by evaluating the facts and how they align with your thoughts, so you can ultimately decide to take on a new approach. PE will gradually teach you to confront your trauma-related memories, feelings and triggers you may have been avoiding, in an effort to help you face your fears and regain control of your life.
There are also other more recent therapies that include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET). EMDR is where you would recall a disturbing event while a therapist guides you to shift your thoughts to more pleasant ones, in an effort to make the event less debilitating. NET is usually done in a group setting where you would share your life story so that traumatic, as well as positive, events are told in chronological order, and bad experience(s) become less fragmented, more refined and understood in a coherent autobiographical story.
In a whirlwind of media, there is an ongoing experimental treatment being funded by the US military, especially granted to those war veterans suffering from PTSD. Sgt. Zehring and other combat veterans, appear to be taking their lives back from these monsters that have so long controlled their civilian lives. The new therapy is called Stellate Ganglion Block (STG), and has been used for nearly a century as an anesthetic during low risk pain procedures. STG is an injection to a bundle of nerves in the neck called the stellate ganglion. These nerves block signals to certain sympathetic regions in the brain (i.e. amygdala), which might otherwise trigger traumatic memories. The injection serves as a kind of reboot of the brain, allowing many to go back to their pre-trauma state. It has been reported to work as soon as 30 minutes and has been said to last for years.
There is hope on the horizon for those suffering from PTSD and mental illness, a growing community, and raised awareness around mental health conditions. Different movements and treatments are gaining traction, but we must continue listening, learning and helping those in need.
Contributing Blog Writer Marpessa Rietbergen is a HealthLynked provider administrator.