What is the difference between PTSD and Trauma?
PTSD is different from Trauma, which refers simply to a disturbing experience without most of the symptoms of PTSD. The degree of subjective disturbance may differ from one person to another. Unfortunately, ‘trauma’ has become an over-used word that can refer to anything from childhood sexual abuse (which may be linked to PTSD) to a bad exam result.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that sometimes follows on from a critical incident: terrorism, airline crash, assault, rape, war incident, murder, robbery, domestic violence, etc. Common symptoms include ‘flashbacks’, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, poor cognitive function, and insomnia.
Myths about traumatic memories and PTSD
Here are some of the most common myths about PTSD and Trauma:
- Any horrible experience will produce symptoms of PTSD
- You never really get over it
- Traumatic memories are stored in the unconscious mind, and are difficult to treat
- Treatment requires that sufferers work through the emotions that accompany traumatic memories
Facts about PTSD and trauma
Here are some facts:
- According to surveys, the majority of people exposed to critical incidents do not develop PTSD
Research shows that, on average, around 80% of people exposed to a critical incident will not develop PTSD. Of those that do the majority have a prior history of mental health disorders, of which the most common is chronic anxiety.
- Additional surveys of people exposed to critical incidents who do not develop PTSD show that they are high in resilience. Common factors include:
- Good family/friendship networks
- Acceptance of emotions, and willingness to manage them
- Focus on problem-solving rather than anxious thoughts
- Identifying as a survivor, rather than as a victim
- Establishing life-lessons from the experience
- Most people with PTSD make a good recovery from trauma over time
Around 50% of people who develop PTSD recover within two years. The majority of the rest find their condition fades with time.
- Traumatic memories are magnified by conscious attention to them. Far from being ‘unconscious’ they are clearly a product of anxious awareness.
It would be (slightly) more accurate to state that they are stored in the brain, but even that ignores the fact they are re-assembled and re-edited in the conscious mind. Recalling traumatic memories so as to ‘work through’ them only increases anxious attention to them, and may hinder progress.
An effective solution for PTSD and Trauma
- The most effective treatment now available for PTSD (it also works for trauma) is Eye Movement Desensitisation and ReProcessing (EMDR). This treatment does not require the client to analyse, or work through their traumatic experiences directly.
EMDR is not a talking therapy, although it is often used alongside it. EMDR is a technique that interrupts retrieval of traumatic memories through distraction of the client’s eye movements, neutralising the emotional impact of the memory. Having used it myself for many years I can testify that it is extremely effective.
A short video illustrating the EMDR process right here.