How Is PTSD Treated? Experts Break Down What you Need to Know

This mental health condition can overwhelm the mind, body, and soul. But there are healing treatments that work, experts say.

When her Uber driver turned down the street she used to live on, Stacy Williams* was scrolling Instagram. Had she been paying attention, she would have asked the driver to go another way. But it was too late by the time she glanced up. "As soon as I saw where I was, it felt like there was a heavy hand pressing on my chest, and my stomach lurched. I thought I was going to be sick," she says.

Williams began hyperventilating as the car stopped at a red light, steps away from the home she'd shared with an emotionally abusive boyfriend. She had avoided that block since their breakup a year ago. Not because she was afraid to run into her ex—he no longer lived there. But because reminders of him triggered her post-traumatic stress disorder.

RECOVERING FROM PTSD
DAVID SENIOR

PTSD can cause a host of symptoms—including heightened fear, intrusive memories, and nightmares. It was added to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980 and used to explain a condition afflicting some Vietnam War combat veterans. But doctors and therapists believe that PTSD may develop in anyone who's survived any sort of deeply traumatic experience that leaves them feeling unsafe.

Expanded Definition

"The DSM-5 says something terrible has to happen, something violent, but I [and other clinicians] disagree," says Quinn Gee-Edwards, LPC, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., who specializes in treating people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community . "You could have watched your parents argue every day for 10 years. You could have seen a loved one slowly die. You could have been a Black person watching the racialized protests [last year]. Those things don't have to happen to you for them to be considered trauma."

About 6 percent of adults in the U.S. will develop PTSD at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for PTSD—though that number is likely higher because many people go undiagnosed. The American Psychiatric Association reports that in the U.S., Latino, African American, and Native American people are disproportionately affected compared with non-Latino whites, and that women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD. There are a number of potential explanations for those stats. Traumatic experiences are more common among those in lower socioeconomic groups —often people of color. And rape, which is more frequently a crime against women, is the most common violent act associated with PTSD in women.

The healthy response to trauma is to process it, which may involve a variety of psychological reactions. You might initially feel fatigued, confused, ashamed, anxious, or hypervigilant (obsessively looking over your shoulder, for instance). You might have distressing dreams or flashbacks, or a trigger may make you feel as if you are reliving your terror. These reactions are all normal in the short term.

They become unhealthy when they persist. If you continue to experience such reactions for more than 30 days, they're considered possible signs of PTSD, says Gee-Edwards: "Specifically, if the symptoms become so big that they are disruptive to your life, you've got a problem."

Moving Forward

A good mental health practitioner—especially one who specializes in PTSD—can help people discover the skills they need to cope with the impact of their trauma.

"There are a couple of evidence-based treatments for PTSD with really good outcomes," says Monica T. Campbell, a licensed psychologist in Philadelphia. An approach known as prolonged exposure, for example, involves reciting the details of the traumatic event until you're eventually able to tell the story without feeling overwhelmed by panic or terror. Another method, called cognitive processing therapy, helps you modify harmful beliefs surrounding a trauma. People with PTSD often blame themselves, or do not see others' part in the incident, including any perpetrators, says Campbell.

EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is a newer technique , in which people move their eyes back and forth, or use another method of bilateral stimulation—such as tapping their knees or holding vibrating buzzers—as they recount the scary experience. The bilateral stimulation reduces the intensity of the traumatic memory, so your brain can finally process it in a healthier way, explains Liza Roeckl, an EMDR therapist in New York City.

In some cases, medication may also be helpful for treating symptoms such as anxiety and depression. "PTSD is a mental health problem with tried and tested ways to heal," says Shaili Jain, MD, a psychiatrist and medical director of integrated care at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California and author of The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing From the Frontlines of PTSD Science. "[There's no] magic wand,"she says. "But [the treatments] work if you're in the hands of a qualified, skilled therapist."

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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