Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
September 18, 2021
This article covers
- What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD?
- Causes of PTSD
- The symptoms of PTSD
- Treating PTSD
- List of useful resources
- How can Mindsum help?
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a form of anxiety that is experienced by people who have been exposed to traumatic events. It is a common mental health condition, that can affect people of all ages, including children and young people.
Following exposure to a traumatic event (e.g. witnessing a severe accident) it is normal for people to feel disturbed by the incident and have some difficulties, such as nightmares and low mood. This is known as an acute stress reaction and it usually disappears after some weeks.
For some people, these difficulties can be more severe and persist over time, lasting longer than one month. This is a sign that they could be suffering from PTSD.
Causes of PTSD
There are many traumatic situations or events that can cause a child or young person to develop PTSD. Some people might find some events more traumatic than others. Examples of traumatic events include:
- Serious car accidents
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Being attacked, kidnapped or held hostage
- Childhood abuse
- Witnessing or being involved in domestic abuse
- Surviving war or natural disasters
- Witnessing or being involved in torture
- Witnessing death or the deceased
- Learning that someone close to you has been affected by trauma (known as secondary trauma)
Not all exposure to distressing events will cause a person to develop PTSD. But there are some risk factors that can make this more likely to happen. This includes:
- Being a child or young person
- If the trauma was a physical assault or rape in nature
- Having experienced previous traumas
- Experiencing many stressors at the same time
- Having a history of mental health disorders
- Being a child with a lack of support from family members
- Being a child of parents with mental health difficulties
The symptoms of PTSD
There are many possible symptoms of PTSD that a person can experience. These symptoms usually cause problems in the everyday life of the child or young person. These can include:
- Re-experiencing (e.g. flashbacks, unwelcomed thoughts, images, nightmares)
- Avoidance (e.g. not going to certain places, staying away from certain people, pushing thoughts away)
- Hyperarousal (e.g. hypervigilance, anger, being irritable)
- Emotional numbing (e.g. not feeling anything, difficulty responding to other people’s emotions)
- Other problems (e.g. feeling disconnected from reality, out-of-control emotions, problems with peers or family members, feeling worthless)
In some cases, people can have a form of PTSD that is extreme, known as Complex PTSD. This usually happens when the person was exposed to traumatic events that were horrific and life-threatening in nature or that lasted a long time. In this case, the person will suffer from all of the above symptoms and the following:
- Severe problems with managing emotions and behaviour
- Believing that they are worthless, useless, defeated or shameful
Young people often have PTSD symptoms in a similar way to adults. But for younger children, these symptoms can be different. Younger children may show signs such as:
- Dreams of the trauma involving monsters
- Drawing or playing out the trauma using toys (e.g. playing out car accidents with toy cars)
- Losing interest in things that they use to enjoy
- Problems at school
- Expressing that they will not live long enough to grow older
- Having regular headaches or stomach aches
“Mel is 19-year-old. It has been a few months since she came face to face with an intruder at night in her home. Since the incident, Mel has just not felt quite the same. During the day, she keeps having flashbacks of that night, which makes her feel really upset. She avoids going to bed unless someone else can sleep alongside her. Whenever night time sets in, Mel grows more and more anxious and tries her best to be on guard. Her parents suggested that she should see someone. Mel decided that it was time to speak to a mental health expert.”
Psychological therapies are usually the main treatment given for PTSD. These therapies typically focus on helping the child or young person come to terms with the traumatic event and process this in a safe environment. If the person is suffering from a more complex form of PTSD, it might take longer for the person to benefit from therapy. These therapies include:
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy
This therapy will help the person to remember the traumatic event in a safe environment until the event is not as upsetting anymore. The person will also learn to tolerate the situations that they use to avoid because of the trauma. This is known as exposure therapy.
Therapy will also help the person to change their thoughts and feelings about the traumatic event. The person might blame themselves for the event or may have exaggerated thoughts about the trauma happening again. Therapy will help the person to learn to create healthier thoughts about the event. This is known as trauma-focused cognitive therapy.
Eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
This therapy will help the person to process and make sense of the traumatic event. It is usually given to children that are older than 7 years old. It involves using specific eye movements, taps and tones, as the person is thinking about the traumatic memories. It is believed that this helps the brain to process the traumatic experience and make sense of it.
Medication is not usually prescribed for young children with PTSD. For adults, it may be prescribed if therapy does not work, or is difficult to complete due to another mental health condition.
There are a few things that parents/carers can also do to help their child cope with PTSD. These include:
- Allowing them to have a period of adjustment right after a traumatic event while offering support
- Allowing them to talk about the event and compliment them on their bravery
- Helping them feel confident in different activities by allowing them to make small decisions (e.g. choosing their own dinner)
- Reassuring them that their feelings are valid and that they are not going crazy
You can get more information about PTSD on the NHS website. Click here to access the link.
Royal College of Psychiatrists has a vast collection of information on PTSD. Click here to access the link.
You can access more information and a comprehensive list of available support for PTSD on the PTSD UK website. Click here to access the link.
Nip in the Bud
You can access useful resources including short films about children with PTSD on the Nip in the Bud website. Click here to access the link.
The Anna Freud national centre for Children and Families has useful podcast episodes on conditions including PTSD in children. Click here to access the link.