Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options​
Almost everyone experiences a traumatic event at some point in their life. Most people experience distress right after a trauma occurs, but with time and self-care, they begin to feel better. For others, however, the distress continues and even gets worse, triggering symptoms that significantly impact their day-to-day functioning. Those who continue to experience distress months or years after the traumatic event occurred may be suffering from a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this article, we’re going to answer all of your questions about PTSD, as well as introduce a groundbreaking neuroplasticity-based treatment program called re-origin that can help you recover.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a disorder that’s triggered by either experiencing or witnessing any type of traumatic experience that triggers fear, shock, horror, or helplessness. PTSD is not “all in your head” as some people claim. Rather, it’s a neurological condition that results from conditioning in certain parts of the brain responsible for survival. An estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime, with women being twice as likely as men to have PTSD [1].

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

In those who develop PTSD, symptoms usually start within three months[2] of the traumatic event, although they can begin later. There are many symptoms of PTSD[3]. Some of the most common include:
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Severe anxiety
  • Frightening, intrusive thoughts
  • Persistent feelings of sadness, irritability, anger, or fear
  • Inability to feel positive emotions
  • Problems with concentration
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Detachment from people and activities
  • Avoiding anything that reminds you of the event or triggers symptoms
These intense, disturbing symptoms can be triggered by the sufferer’s own thoughts and feelings or by words, sounds, objects, or situations that remind the sufferer of the traumatic event.

Causes and Risk Factors of PTSD

Based on research[4], we now know that traumatic events can trigger a maladaptive stress response in a part of the brain called the limbic system. The limbic system is not only involved in your behavioral and emotional responses, but also drives your primal fight/flight/freeze response. PTSD symptoms are not productive or beneficial, yet they continue to occur because they’ve essentially become programmed into the circuitry of your brain. These faulty pathways cause protective mechanisms in the limbic system to fire more rapidly and inappropriately, leading to PTSD symptoms. It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, however, there are some risk factors[5] that may make you more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event. These include:
  • Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma
  • Having a high chronic stress load leading up to the traumatic event
  • Having experienced other trauma earlier in life
  • Having a job that increases your risk of being exposed to traumatic events, such as military personnel and first responders

How is PTSD diagnosed?

PTSD is typically diagnosed by a doctor who has experience helping people with mental illnesses, such as a psychiatrist. After ruling out other medical conditions, your doctor will use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to evaluate your condition. In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must report experiencing all of the following for at least one month[6]:
  • At least one re-experiencing symptom (i.e. flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts, etc.)
  • At least one avoidance symptom (i.e. avoiding thoughts, feelings, places, people, or things that remind you of the traumatic experience)
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms (i.e. being easily startled, feeling tense or “on edge,” having trouble sleeping, having angry outbursts, etc.)
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms (i.e. negative thoughts about oneself or the world, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, distorted feelings like guilt or blame, etc.)

How is PTSD treated?

Not everyone who develops PTSD will require treatment. For some people, symptoms of PTSD aren’t very severe and disappear on their own with time.

That being said, many people with PTSD do require treatment to recover, at no fault of their own. Let’s discuss the available treatment options, including the re-origin program, and the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

Psychotherapy

Trauma-focused psychotherapy has been shown to be the most effective type of talk therapy for those suffering with PTSD[7]. There are different kinds of trauma-focused psychotherapy, but the following treatments are best supported by research[8]:

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CPT and CBT are types of talk therapy that help you recognize, evaluate, and change cognitive patterns (ways of thinking) that are keeping you stuck and triggering symptoms. The key concept is that by changing your thoughts, you can change how you feel. These therapies are safe, effective, and non-invasive[9], however, some studies show that they only have a PTSD recovery rate of around 40 percent[10]. Additionally, their effectiveness can depend on the skill of the therapist leading the therapy, and they are often inaccessible to many people because of the cost.

Prolonged Exposure (PE)

Cognitive therapy is often used alongside prolonged exposure (PE), which teaches you to gradually face trauma-related memories, feelings, and situations you’ve been avoiding since your trauma. Let’s say, for example, you got in a car accident and now have a fear of getting in another car accident. Exposure therapy would involve gradually exposing yourself to driving again. First, you may just talk about getting in a car. Then, perhaps you’d visualize getting in a car, then practice actually sitting in a car, and finally driving. You essentially desensitize your mind through gradual exposure to the things you’ve learned to fear. Similar to CPT and CBT, prolonged exposure is safe, effective, and non-invasive [11], however, its effectiveness, too, can depend on the skill of the therapist leading the therapy. Prolonged exposure has a high dropout rate among individuals with PTSD—up to 62 percent[12]—and is inaccessible for many people due to the cost.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories and change how you react to them. Like the other forms of therapy above, EMDR is considered to be safe and non-invasive. While many studies have pointed to EMDR’s effectiveness, some reviews question the contribution of the eye movement component in EMDR to the treatment outcome[13]. In other words, some researchers theorize that it may be the talk therapy and desensitization portions of the therapy that are leading to results and not necessarily the eye movement portion of the therapy. Additionally, sessions are expensive and the effectiveness of treatments can vary based on the skill of the therapist administering the therapy.

Medication

Medication may also be prescribed, often in tandem with psychotherapy, to help improve symptoms of PTSD. The two types of medication that are most commonly prescribed include:

Antidepressants

This class of drugs reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. They can also help improve sleep problems and concentration. While antidepressants have proven to be effective in managing depression and anxiety [14], they come with the risk of numerous side effects and can be hard to discontinue[15]. Additionally, they do not address the root neurochemical cause and, as a result, often lead to dependency.

Anti-anxiety medications

This class of drugs is used to reduce anxiety. The drawback is that anti-anxiety medications carry the potential for abuse and side effects and are notoriously difficult to discontinue. As with antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications don’t address the root neurochemical cause of the symptoms, opening the door to dependency.

Our Approach: re-origin

re-origin is a science-based, self-directed neuroplasticity training program specifically designed to help people recover from chronic conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, pain, fatigue, and chemical or food sensitivities. Our program is based on years of research that demonstrates that the brain has the ability to change and form new neuronal connections[16] (neuroplasticity). This is great news, as it means that you are not stuck with your PTSD symptoms forever. Sure, your brain might be temporarily stuck in “PTSD mode”[17] right now, but thanks to neuroplasticity, your brain can get unstuck, too. Using specific neurocognitive exercises, you can get your brain out of “emergency mode” and back to a place of safety and balance where health and happiness can naturally resume. Unlike psychotherapy or pharmaceutical interventions, re-origin’s approach is self-directed, meaning it doesn’t require the guidance of a therapist or doctor. Additionally, this treatment does not chase or mask symptoms, but rather works to rewire the part of the brain that is causing the dysfunction (the limbic system), resulting in long-lasting recovery. The program is easy to follow, cost-effective, and takes just minutes a day to implement.

How to live and cope with PTSD

There are many suggestions out there for living and coping with PTSD, some of which include spending time with friends and family, enjoying nature, joining a support group, and practicing relaxation techniques. While all of these things are good practices and could offer some momentary benefit, they don’t address the root cause of your PTSD symptoms.

At re-origin, we don’t want you to live with or have to cope with PTSD—we want you to recover, eliminating the need for coping mechanisms. The key to overcoming PTSD lies in systematically using a proven methodology to switch off the overactive threat responses in the brain and build more functional neural pathways. That’s where re-origin comes in!

Our program involves applying an easy to follow five-step neurocognitive technique to override and rewire maladapted conditioning in the brain. You can learn more about the technique with a free trial at re-origin.com/freetrial.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about PTSD:

Based on extensive research, we believe that PTSD results from experiencing a traumatic event while your chronic stress load is already high. This combination essentially overwhelms the brain, leading to an overactive stress response and unproductive, conditioned patterns in the brain.

The triggering event can be anything that generates fear, shock, horror, or helplessness. The event can involve you directly, be something that you were a witness to, or be something that involved someone you’re close to.

You can recover from PTSD, although some methods of treatment are more successful than others. The key to recovery is committing to a proven, science-backed methodology, like the one used in the re-origin program.
PTSD is characterized by three main types of symptoms: 1.) Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive thoughts, feelings, flashbacks, and nightmares, 2.) Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma, and 3.) Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling “on edge” or jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.
The most well-known example of PTSD is a war veteran experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and other symptoms after returning home. While this is certainly an example of PTSD, people of any age can develop PTSD after any type of traumatic experience that triggers fear, shock, horror, or helplessness. Examples of traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include a natural disaster, the death of a loved one, a personal assault, an accident, abuse of any kind, or being the victim of a crime.
While it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between an anxiety disorder and PTSD, these two disorders are not the same. The main difference is that people with an anxiety disorder don’t necessarily have to experience a traumatic event to develop anxiety and can experience anxiety without triggers. PTSD, on the other hand, is more specific to a certain traumatic event and symptoms are often triggered by people, places, and things that remind the sufferer of the trauma.

A Final Word from re-origin

While talk therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and pharmaceutical interventions certainly have their place when it comes to PTSD treatment, the reality is that these interventions are prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to most. They generally require long-term treatment commitments, or lifetime management, and have inconclusive data surrounding their long-term effectiveness. Most importantly, these treatment methods don’t target the core issue: limbic system impairment. If you’re suffering from PTSD, please know that you can recover. The symptoms you’re experiencing are not your fault. You did not cause them and you’re not imagining them or exaggerating. You’re dealing with a brain impairment, but there is hope! Just as traumatic events can cause limbic system impairment, positive, corrective experiences can reestablish balance. It’s just a matter of undoing the faulty conditioning in your brain. With the right tools, dedication, and patience, you can recover from PTSD and reclaim your life.

References

  1. American Psychiatric Association
  2. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Available from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/
  3. Medical News Today. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/156285#causes
  4. Bremner J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 445–461. Available from:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/
  5. Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967
  6. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Available from:https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/
  7. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Available from: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand_tx/talk_therapy.asp
  8. Gallagher, M. W., & Resick, P. A. (2012). Mechanisms of Change in Cognitive Processing Therapy and Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD: Preliminary Evidence for the Differential Effects of Hopelessness and Habituation. Cognitive therapy and research, 36(6), 10.1007/s10608-011-9423-6. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3866807/
  9. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Available from: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/txessentials/cpt_for_ptsd_pro.asp#:~:text=Those%20participants%20who%20received%20CPT,by%20the%20end%20of%20treatment
  10. Watkins, L. E., Sprang, K. R., & Rothbaum, B. O. (2018). Treating PTSD: A Review of Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Interventions. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 12, 258. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3866807/
  11. Belleau, E. L., Chin, E. G., Wanklyn, S. G., Zambrano-Vazquez, L., Schumacher, J. A., & Coffey, S. F. (2017). Pre-treatment predictors of dropout from prolonged exposure therapy in patients with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder and comorbid substance use disorders. Behaviour research and therapy, 91, 43–50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2017.01.011
  12. Seidler, G. H., & Wagner, F. E. (2006). Comparing the efficacy of EMDR and trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of PTSD: a meta-analytic study. Psychological medicine, 36(11), 1515–1522. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291706007963
  13. Cipriani, A., Furukawa, T. A., Salanti, G., Chaimani, A., Atkinson, L. Z., Ogawa, Y., … & Geddes, J. R. (2018). Comparative efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs for the acute treatment of adults with major depressive disorder: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. Focus, 16(4), 420-429.
  14. WebMD. Available from: https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/coping-with-side-effects-of-depression-treatment
  15. Puderbaugh M, Emmady PD. Neuroplasticity. [Updated 2021 Jul 6]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557811/
  16. Bremner, J. D., Elzinga, B., Schmahl, C., & Vermetten, E. (2008). Structural and functional plasticity of the human brain in posttraumatic stress disorder. Progress in brain research, 167, 171–186. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0079-6123(07)67012-5
  17. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Available from: https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/symptoms#:~:text=The%20disorder%20is%20characterized%20by,are%20reminders%20of%20the%20trauma