Dispelling the nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder

Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman post for The Guardian Blog:

Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder can take months, but an intense course may relieve symptoms in just a week

In post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, patients repeatedly relive the traumatic event. Photograph: Azhar Rahim/EPA

On Wednesday morning we woke to the news that a passenger ferry had sunk off the coast of South Korea, with at least four people confirmed dead and 280 unaccounted for. Meanwhile, though the search has continued for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, relatives’ hopes of a safe landing have long since been extinguished.

Human tragedies like these are the stuff of daily news, but we rarely hear about the long-term psychological effects on survivors and the bereaved, who may experience the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for years after their experience.

Although most people have heard of PTSD, few will have a clear idea of what it entails. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) defines a traumatic event as one in which a person “experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others”. PTSD is marked by four types of responses to the trauma. First, patients repeatedly relive the event, either in the form of nightmares or flashbacks. Second, they seek to avoid any reminder of the traumatic event. Third, they feel constantly on edge. Fourth, they are plagued with negative thoughts and low mood.

According to one estimate, almost 8% of people will develop PTSD during their lifetime. Clearly trauma (and PTSD) can strike anyone, but the risks of developing the condition are not equally distributed. Rates are higher in socially disadvantaged areas, for instance. Women may be twice as likely to develop PTSD as men. This is partly because women are at greater risk of the kinds of trauma that commonly produce PTSD (rape, for example). Nevertheless – and for unknown reasons – when exposed to the same type of trauma, women are more susceptible to PTSD than men.

What causes it? In one sense, the answer is obvious: a specific trauma. Yet this is only part of the story, because not everyone who is raped or badly beaten up develops PTSD. Of the contemporary psychological attempts to answer that question, the most influential is the one formulated by the clinical psychologists Anke Ehlers and David Clark at the University of Oxford.

They argue that PTSD develops when the person believes they are still seriously threatened by the trauma they have experienced. Why should someone assume they are still endangered by an event that happened months or even years previously? Ehlers and Clark identify two factors.

First is a negative interpretation of the trauma and the normal feelings that follow, for example believing that “nowhere is safe”, “I attract disaster”, or “I can’t cope with stress”. These interpretations can make the person feel in danger physically (the world seems unsafe), or psychologically (their self-confidence and sense of well-being feel irreparably damaged).

Second are problems with the memory of the trauma. Partly because of the way the person experiences the event, the memory somehow fails to acquire a properly developed context and meaning. As a result, it constantly intrudes. Ehlers and Clark liken the traumatic memory to “a cupboard in which many things have been thrown in quickly and in a disorganised fashion, so it is impossible to fully close the door and things fall out at unpredictable times”…

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