Updated: Jan 12, 2021
If I asked you what Elsa, Tony Stark, and Lieutenant Dan all had in common, could you answer?
What if I add Batman, Stitch, any of the Incredibles, Chief Tui, or Buzz Lightyear to the list?
What if I told you they all showed signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
PTSD has had a long history of being misunderstood. Once thought to be nothing more than cowardice, we now understand that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an injury - a survival response to an overwhelming situation. While PTSD was a diagnosis that originated to understand and categorize trauma experienced by those with military experiences, PTSD isn’t something only soldiers suffer from. We now understand that these symptoms are also present in every day life for many people who have gone through something that resulted in physical, mental, or emotional trauma.
Trauma is self defined - meaning what is experienced as traumatic can vary greatly from person to person. An event, such as a car crash, may be traumatic for one person, while another person may not have the same emotional or psychological experience to the same event. To be given the diagnosis of PTSD, at least one of the following criteria must be met such that that the "individual was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury or actual or threatened sexual violence in the following way(s):
Witnessing the trauma
Learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma
Indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma, usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, medics)". (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)
The symptoms can manifest differently, as well. Tony Stark had flashbacks and threw himself into his work. Lieutenant Dan used alcohol to numb his pain. Batman became a vigilante, and Elsa withdrew from everyone. Chief Tui became overprotective of Moana.
While these examples are fiction, they’re pretty accurate. Well, maybe not the vigilante part. The point is that PTSD has effects that range from depression and anxiety to substance abuse, and even physical symptoms, such as shaking or pain.
Some of the most common symptoms following a traumatic experience include:
Unwanted upsetting memories
Nightmares and/or flashbacks
Emotional distress after exposure to traumatic reminders
Physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders
Difficulty experiencing positive affect
Irritability or aggression
Hypervigilance and/or heightened startle reaction
Difficulty concentrating and/or sleeping (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
There are a variety of options for treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some treatments address the symptoms while others address the underlying trauma, both with the goal of improving daily life. There are specialized therapy techniques such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) that are designed to address trauma in a different way. "EMDR, rather than focusing on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from the distressing issue, allows the brain to resume its natural healing process" (EMDRIA, 2018). Talk therapy and medications can also be effective, while some can benefit from service animals. Your treatment should be tailored to you and your specific needs. Not all treatment methods are effective for everyone, so it is recommended that you discuss your symptoms with your mental health care provider and together come up with a plan to address your trauma symptoms.
You, or a loved one, may be struggling in the aftermath of a traumatic experience. My hope is that you know that you are not alone. Therapists are trained to help you address your trauma and get back to living the life you love. Interested in taking that first step? Schedule an assessment with a mental health professional today!
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
EMDR International Association. (2018). What is EMDR therapy. www.emdria.org
Maria Laquerre is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who specializes in addressing trauma with clients of all ages. Maria has practiced therapy in New Mexico since her return in 2008. Maria's current passion is supporting therapists in doing their best clinical work, which she pursues through offering supervision, consultation and trainings. Maria enjoys spending time with her family, watching Star Wars and Marvel movies, discussing the psychology of pop culture and loves a good book!