Living with PTSD

Living with PTSD is one of the hardest things I ever had to live with. Here’s some information about the disorder.

PTSD develops in about 1 in 3 people who experience severe trauma.


What causes PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) can develop after stressful or frightening traumatic experiences.

Here are some common types of events that can lead to the development of PTSD:

Numbers from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center show that 91% of rape and sexual assault victims are women and 9% are males. Moreover, 20% of women will be raped at some point in their lives compared to 1.4% of men. One study found the effects of sexual assault are so damaging that 94% of women victims experienced PTSD symptoms within the first two weeks following the incident.

Why does PTSD develop?

Although the exact reason PTSD develops is unknown, here are some medical speculations:

One suggestion is that the symptoms of PTSD are the result of an instinctive mechanism intended to help you survive further traumatic experiences.


The feeling of being “on edge” (hyperarousal) may develop to help you react quickly in another crisis.

Studies have shown that people with PTSD have abnormal levels of stress hormones. Normally, when in danger, the body produces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to trigger a reaction.


This reaction, often known as the “fight or flight”, helps to deaden the senses and dull pain. People with PTSD continue to produce high amounts of fight or flight hormones even when there’s no danger.


It’s thought this may be responsible for the numbed emotions and hyperarousal experienced by some people with PTSD.

In people with PTSD, parts of the brain involved in emotional processing appear different in brain scans.


One part of the brain responsible for memory and emotions is known as the hippocampus. In people with PTSD, the hippocampus appears smaller in size. It’s thought that changes in this part of the brain may be related to fear and anxiety, memory problems, and flashbacks.


The malfunctioning hippocampus may prevent flashbacks and nightmares being properly processed, so the anxiety they generate does not reduce over time.


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Symptoms of PTSD

PSTD symptoms may start within a month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships (romantic, platonic, and professional). They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks.


PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types:

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event(s)
  • Reliving the traumatic event(s) as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event(s)
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event(s)

Symptoms of avoidance may include:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event(s)
  • Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event(s)
  • Being unable to remember details of the traumatic event(s)
  • Being unable to express affection
  • Excessive use of drugs or alcohol to help avoid memories
  • Constant feeling like you have to stay busy to avoid intrusive thoughts of the trauma(s)
  • Feeling like you can’t trust anyone

Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:

  • Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Feeling detached from family and friends
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Suicide ideation
  • Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event(s)

Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:

  • Anxiety attacks
  • Panic attacks
  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Always being on guard for danger
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability, angry outbursts, or aggressive behavior
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Feeling physically numb and emotionally detached from your body
  • Engaging in Self-destructive behaviors
  • Physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling

For children 6 years old and younger, signs and symptoms may also include:

Intensity of Symptoms

PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time. You may have more PTSD symptoms when you’re stressed in general, or when you come across reminders of what you went through. For example, you may hear a car backfire and relive combat experiences, or you may see a report on the news about a sexual assault and feel overcome by memories of your own assault.


Certain triggers can set off your PTSD. They can bring back strong memories – You may feel like you’re living through the traumatic event(s) all over again. The most difficult thing about triggers is that they can be anything including specific people, sights, sounds, smells, similar feelings, or thoughts that remind you of the traumatic event(s) in some way. You can even be triggered by anxiety, stress, experiencing another traumatic event or anything that sends your body into a higher adrenaline physiological state – including riding attractions at amusement parks. 

Ways to help family and friends with PTSD

It’s hard not to take the symptoms of PTSD personally, but it’s important to remember that a person with PTSD may not always have control over their behavior. Your loved one’s nervous system is “stuck” in a state of constant alert, making them continually feel vulnerable and unsafe, or having to relive the traumatic experience over and over. This can lead to anger, irritability, depression, mistrust, and other PTSD symptoms that your loved one can’t simply choose to turn off.


Here are some tips you can use to help them cope and return to normalcy. Without support the symptoms of PTSD can even lead to job loss, substance abuse, and other problems that can affect the person’s whole family.

It’s common for people with PTSD to withdraw from family and friends. They may feel ashamed, not want to burden others, or believe that other people won’t understand what they’re going through. While it’s important to respect your loved one’s boundaries, your comfort and support can help them overcome feelings of helplessness, grief, and despair. In fact, trauma experts believe that face-to-face support from others is the most important factor in PTSD recovery.

Try to listen without expectations or judgments. Make it clear that you’re interested and that you care, but don’t worry about giving advice. It’s the act of listening attentively that is helpful to your loved one, not what you say.


A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so avoid the temptation to tell your loved one to stop rehashing the past and move on. Instead, offer to talk as many times as they need.


Some of the things your loved one tells you might be very hard to listen to. It’s okay to dislike what you hear, but it’s important to respect their feelings and reactions. If you come across as disapproving, horrified, or judgmental, they are unlikely to open up to you again.

Trauma alters the way a person sees the world, making it seem like a perpetually dangerous and frightening place. It also damages people’s ability to trust others and themselves. If there’s any way you can rebuild your loved one’s sense of security, it will contribute to their recovery.

It’s possible that your loved one, doesn’t know all of their triggers. Through conversation and experiences, you and them will learn to anticipate and manage their triggers.

PTSD can lead to difficulties managing emotions and impulses. In your loved one, this may manifest as extreme irritability, moodiness, or explosions of rage.


People suffering from PTSD live in a constant state of physical and emotional stress. Since they usually have trouble sleeping, it means they’re constantly exhausted, on edge, and physically strung out—increasing the likelihood that they’ll overreact to day-to-day stressors.


For many people with PTSD, anger can also be a cover for other feelings such as grief, helplessness, or guilt. Anger makes them feel powerful, instead of weak and vulnerable. Others try to suppress their anger until it erupts when you least expect it.

Despite the importance of your love and support, it isn’t always enough. Many people who have been traumatized need professional PTSD therapy. But bringing it up can be touchy. Think about how you’d feel if someone suggested that you needed therapy.


Wait for the right time to raise your concerns. Don’t bring it up when you’re arguing or in the middle of a crisis. Also, be careful with your language. Avoid anything that implies that your loved one is “crazy.” Frame it in a positive, practical light: treatment is a way to learn new skills that can be used to handle a wide variety of PTSD-related challenges.

Letting your friend or family member’s PTSD dominate your life while ignoring your own needs is a surefire recipe for burnout and may even lead to secondary traumatization. You can develop your own trauma symptoms from listening to trauma stories or being exposed to disturbing symptoms like flashbacks. The more depleted and overwhelmed you feel, the greater the risk is that you’ll become traumatized.


In order to have the strength to be there for your loved one over the long haul and lower your risk for secondary traumatization, you have to nurture and care for yourself.


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PTSD and Martial Arts

Holistic practitioners and doctors alike are beginning to note the positive effects of martial arts training for trauma survivors. Some are offering basic striking training or full-on martial arts practice to their trauma patients and are seeing lives reinvigorated and very likely, saved.

When a trauma survivor’s fight or flight responses are negated by the freeze response, an effective treatment must be formulated to restore their innate yet overwhelmed physical responses to stress. The freeze response is a deep-seated reaction to predatory beings or threatening emotional stressors. Trauma victims can become locked into a system of un-response, rendering their internal defenses void. For survivors, who are not effectively treated with talk therapy alone, martial arts practice can become the crux of their recovery.

"When they (trauma survivors) get back in touch with the fight impulse in their body in a very grounded, calm, mindful way, they can start to feel that it’s safe for them to stick up for themselves"
- Jane Clapp, Trauma Recovery Specialist

Trauma recovery specialist, Jane Clapp, says, “When they (trauma survivors) get back in touch with the fight impulse in their body in a very grounded, calm, mindful way, they can start to feel that it’s safe for them to stick up for themselves. That fight training is coming up through the body and feeding into their brain and impacting their neuroplasticity.”


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