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PTSD Can Happen to Anyone

By Dr. Karl Benzio MD

Page Overview

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder most commonly develops after a person experiences or witnesses a very stressful or traumatic event, such as a violent assault, robbery, accident, or sudden death of a loved one. It can also occur after a person sees a traumatic event happen to others, such as a natural disaster, violent crime, or terrorist attack.

After the traumatic event, the individual’s thinking or emotions become disrupted by the event so they have a hard time dealing with everyday life, especially situations that might have some similarities to the traumatic event. Intrusive thoughts of the event and being on edge combine with difficulties concentrating, controlling the intensity of negative emotions, and interacting with others to interfere with the carrying out of even routine tasks.

Who Can Get PTSD?

In general, we classically think of people suffering with PTSD as those who were a victim of, or witnessed, sexual and physical abuse or major physical trauma, such as military personnel and first responders. Physical traumas are often thought of as life-threatening issues like physically violent experiences: war, being attacked or mugged, being in a car accident, fire, or natural disaster. The extreme psychological traumas are caused by sexual and physical abuse, especially by family members or someone trusted or in authority, like a teacher or coach.

But the criteria for PTSD defining the traumatic event states: “The person was exposed to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence.” The physical or sexual danger is clear and what we commonly associate with PTSD as we described earlier. But “serious injury” is vague and not clearly defined.  Whether an event is “serious” and could cause “injury” that is psychological, emotional, relational, spiritual, or physical is based on the victim’s immediate evaluation of the event, as it occurs. So trauma is in the eye of the beholder. What might be traumatic and disrupting to some might not be to others. So it is important to understand, PTSD is not only when a person has exposure to death, physical violence, or sexual abuse, but can also be caused by “minor” trauma, including divorce, moving from close friends, and emotional and psychological abuse, rejection, failures, or loss of a job.

Children can develop PTSD after suffering abuse, neglect, and even “minor” (from an adult’s perspective) traumatic experiences. When we view potentially stressful events that occur to a child or that happened earlier in a person’s life, we tend to view these events from a psychologically mature adult perspective. Instead, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of a 5 year old (or the age of the person when they actually experienced the event) and then we can easily realize how many more events are actually serious injuries to the individual and can potentially lead to PTSD if not worked through properly.

For example, being picked last during 1st grade recess for the dodgeball game and having everyone laugh at them is pretty traumatic to a 7 year old, even though to an adult it might not seem like that big of a deal.

Just because a particular event happens to many people or is common, doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause serious injury and isn’t traumatic. Growing up with an addicted parent, parents getting divorced, or bullying are all sadly common in our society and can easily be minimized by saying, “the kid seems to be OK now” but that doesn’t mean they don’t cause serious injury and won’t lead to PTSD. Many do develop PTSD as a result of these and similar minor but serious traumatic injuries.

Some traumas can even be events we initiated or were willing participants in – bullying someone, yelling at our child, divorcing our spouse, having an abortion – yet later we realize that witnessing or taking part in that event was harmful to us as well.

Risk Factors

The way a person reacts to and processes the traumatic event (or fails to process it well in the case of PTSD), determines whether or not the individual will develop PTSD. Risk factors for developing PTSD include: experiencing trauma and not processing it accurately, delay in processing the event, ignoring that the event occurred, younger age at time of event, ineffective stress management skills, lack of spirituality or faith, or not building resiliency skills to manage future stressful situations that mimic previous trauma.

According to the National Institute on Health, some resilience factors that may reduce the risk of PTSD include:

  • Seeking out support from other people, such as friends and family
  • Finding a support group after a traumatic event
  • Learning to feel good about one’s own actions in the face of danger
  • Having a positive coping strategy, or a way of getting through the bad event and learning from it
  • Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear

When someone survives a traumatic experience, it is important for them to be allowed to feel and express the many feelings and talk through the event with someone who can help them understand exactly what happened and what the ramifications of the event are limited to. If the person is able to work through the event just after it happens, and then a couple more times shortly afterward, they probably won’t need any further treatment. But if the person keeps it in, doesn’t process the event and express the many strong feelings, they often begin to fixate on the event, or conversely, are not able to even think about it, remember it, or try to push it out of their mind. Seeing a professional to help them understand and process it will significantly reduce a person’s risk of developing PTSD.

How Does PTSD Affect an Individual’s Life?

Because the significant psychological, emotional, or spiritual hurt a person experiences due to a traumatic event is so disrupting, they never want to experience pain like that again. In their mind, they think “the best way to avoid that kind of pain is to make sure I don’t experience an event similar to that ever again.” Believing their defenses made a mistake or weren’t alert enough and allowed a threat to sneak through and hurt them, their self-protective instincts kick in and ramps up the radar a few notches to be on super high alert for any situation that even barely resembles the past trauma or has the potential to cause some slight pain.

Ramping up the radar and defenses to high alert might catch any potential threat early and snuff it out, but the body, mind, and spirit get damaged when we are continually on super alert and hypervigilant, or even paranoid, about any potential threat to our safety. A PTSD person’s radar system becomes overly sensitive to any similar situation to the past trauma causing so much restriction and disruption to what the person is able to do and accomplish in their daily living.

A person with a super-heightened defense radar and fearful of experiencing pain will struggle with many symptoms. Here are examples, but many more exist:

  • Physical – heightened state of chronic alertness or fear leads to the following: increased blood pressure and heart rate; increased stomach acid leading to heartburn, reflux, or ulcers; diarrhea or constipation; muscle tension, tremors, ticks or twitches; headaches; back pain; fatigue; lowered immune system; insomnia; worsening of other illnesses like diabetes, psoriasis, fibromyalgia, etc.
  • Relational – being fearful that almost anyone could be harmful or dangerous could lead to issues such as isolation, burning out relationships because of always testing the person, fear of people, mistrust, not letting anyone close, not opening up to others, fear of being vulnerable, avoiding expectations, fear of commitment, or trouble interacting with others.
  • Thinking – trying to be on alert and taking in information all the time impairs thinking leading to difficulties with concentration, focus, distractibility, confusion, feeling overwhelmed, forgetfulness, obsessing, ruminating, trouble turning their mind off, or reading too much into something.
  • Spiritual – fear of abandonment or disconnection from God, neglecting devotional or prayer time, difficulty seeing their situation from a Godly perspective, or trouble applying Biblical truths to the past trauma or current risks or adversities.
  • Emotional – anxiety, fear, depression, loneliness, feelings of failure, incompetence, victimization, anger, irritability, on edge, or phobias.

All these symptoms are on top of or part of the constellation of PTSD symptoms I described on page 1 PTSD can be very debilitating, and sufferers feel imprisoned, isolated, or always at risk for another traumatic event to occur, causing pain and further disruption.

Another response some people develop to cope with or overcome a traumatizing experience is pushing themselves into being in that situation again and again to try and fix it, make it turn out better, or master it so it doesn’t bother them anymore. For example, a woman growing up with an alcoholic father might marry an alcoholic to try and make it turn out better, show she can handle it, or she can fix her ‘dad’ and the trauma and its ripples will finally end. Others completely avoid situations similar to the one in which the trauma occurred thinking that will make it all go away, and therefore are severely limited in what they can or are willing to do in life’s activities.

Effect of PTSD on the Family

As you can imagine from the list of symptoms above, having someone in the family suffer from PTSD not only is sad to see but has a significant impact on those around the PTSD sufferer. These ripple effects of PTSD are very disruptive to a family as well. What was once a smooth functioning family unit can quickly become a household of sadness, anxiety, misunderstanding, arguments, neglect, lying, and hurt feelings.

Family members are often confused about why their loved one is acting they way they are, why they can’t just get over the event, or they pamper them too much or avoid talking about and processing the event. Without a diagnosis or treatment, PTSD can cause severe divisions in families as we’ve seen many vets or those with sexual abuse histories become isolated, estranged from their families, or families torn apart and having to choose sides.

Families affected by PTSD suffer with:

  • Babying the victim
  • Walking on eggshells
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Separation
  • Divorce
  • Fighting
  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Neglect
  • Isolation
  • Lying
  • Addiction
  • Loss of job
  • Financial issues

Hope for the PTSD Sufferer

As we’ve discussed, PTSD can be very disruptive and even life threatening, to individuals and families. Although our world is filled with major traumas like death, fighting, and abuse as well as many more ‘minor’ traumas which we described earlier, not everyone involved in a traumatic event develops PTSD. Resiliency to the damages of a traumatic event can be built in a person. And if a person does develop PTSD, effective treatments addressing all three spheres of spirit, mind, and body are very successful in alleviating the symptoms, healing their mind, and allowing them the opportunity to live in peace and joy, free of the prison built by the ripples of the traumatic experience. Spiritual principles and truths along with psychological equipping are always vital parts of the treatment but depending on various factors, such as the age of the victim, how much time since the event, and the person’s coping skills and support system will influence the types of psychotherapy and whether medications are needed as well.

Key to treatment is a good assessment to make an accurate diagnosis and then getting to the right specialist to implement the treatment best fitting the situation and symptoms. For most, this can be accomplished on an outpatient basis, but some need a more intensive and safer setting such as residential treatment retreat for 2-4 weeks. Call our Lighthouse Network Helpline (844-Life-Change or 844-543-3242) to find the best options to help you restore your mind and life and be free of the past traumas stealing your joy and peace.

Learn more about the treatment and prognosis of PTSD on page 3 of our guide.