Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

When something extremely stressful happens in our lives (like seeing someone injured or killed, or having our own bodily safety threatened in some way), it can feel overwhelming. We may be troubled by these experiences to varying degrees. Often, we’re able to recover on our own and lead normal lives again—especially with the help of those who care about us.

Sometimes, however, our natural healing process gets interrupted, and we find ourselves struggling with the aftermath of trauma for years afterward.

What is Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Trauma refers to an overwhelming experience that typically involves a major threat to physical, emotional, or psychological safety. In some cases, the traumatic experience is a one-time event. For others, the trauma may recur on a regular basis, becoming chronic. It is a common misconception that we have to experience the traumatic event directly in order feel its full effect. Witnessing or learning about events that happen to our loved ones can be equally traumatic.

We can be exposed to trauma through the following means:

• Directly experiencing the event
• Witnessing the event
• Learning that the event happened to a loved one
• Experiencing repeated exposure to aversive details of a traumatic event (e.g., first responders)

Some examples of traumatic events include:

  • Assaults
  • Military combat
  • Car accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Sudden or violent death of a loved one
  • Interpersonal violence
  • Mass shootings
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and assaults
  • Traumatic separations and significant losses
  • Torture
  • Enslavement
  • Certain types of disability, illness, and medical treatments

The impact of trauma can be varied and uneven. Many of the initial responses to a trauma may subside within the first month or so after the event. However, when those responses do not go away, posttraumatic stress (PTSD) may occur. These symptoms look different from person to person, but can include the following:

  • Intrusive memories of the event
  • Flashbacks
  • Increased arousal (difficulty concentrating, hyper-alertness, increased physiological activation, exaggerated startle response)
  • Avoidance of situations/ reminders related to the trauma
  • Inability to remember certain parts of the traumatic event
  • Negative changes in thoughts or feelings about yourself or the traumatic situation
  • Numbing of emotions
  • Sleep difficulties or distressing dreams
  • Irritability
  • Diminished interest in significant activities
  • Feeling detached from others

What causes Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

There are many different factors that contribute to how someone responds to a trauma and whether PTSD develops:

  • Getting physically hurt during an experience
  • Repeated traumatic life experiences
  • Current and past mental health issues
  • Hormones and chemicals in the brain
  • Lack of support from loved ones or professionals
  • Dealing with extra stressors (e.g., loss a job, loss of a loved one)

Simply put: people develop PTSD when they encounter an experience that overwhelms their ability to cope.

Whenever we experience something that is overwhelming, our body goes into overdrive to help us try to cope. We may find the coping strategies we have learned throughout our life to be less effective following a traumatic experience. In response, our brain tries to build a barrier to protect us from the thoughts, feelings, and memories of the trauma. This. is. normal. No one wants to think about a traumatic event. However, the more we try to avoid the traumatic thoughts, feelings, and memories, the more we can’t escape them.

PTSD occurs when our survival mechanism that is attempting to help us cope with the trauma overextends and starts to negatively impact our lives. Treatment therefore focuses on helping us create new ways of responding to trauma, while gaining the skills needed to live a life according to our values.

Treating Trauma and PTSD

Trauma can bring a range of responses including shame, guilt, self-loathing, fear, anxiety and daily struggle. While no treatment can erase what happened, there are effective treatments that can help you heal from trauma and move towards taking your life back.

Everyone’s experience of trauma is different, and therefore, it is important that your provider work collaboratively with you to customize treatment to meet your unique needs. Someone who experiences a singular trauma in adulthood will likely have a very different course of treatment compared to someone who experienced multiple traumas dating back to their childhood.

How long does treatment take?

The length of treatment can vary widely depending on each individual’s circumstance. Many people find significant relief in as little as 3-4 months. For others, the road to recovery may be longer and more winding. It is important that you and your therapist have an open dialogue about how things are going and adjust treatment based on what is and what is not working.

What kind of treatments do you use?

We utilize evidence-based practices in working with trauma, including those treatments most strongly recommended by the American Psychological Association (APA) in their Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of PTSD. Our therapists routinely incorporate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure Therapy when working with clients who have experienced a traumatic event. Click here for more information on treatments for PTSD and APA recommendations.

Our therapist may also use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy when helping clients recover from the effects of trauma. ACT (pronounced as one word, “act”) is a treatment in the cognitive behavioral tradition that focuses on learning to more effectively manage our distress and to move towards living a more meaningful life.

In ACT, we begin by looking at the ways we relate to painful or uncomfortable experiences and how they may be creating more pain for us. As human beings, we possess an incredible ability to think about all sorts of things, to reflect upon and recreate the past, or to imagine the future. This remarkable ability is a double-edged sword: we may spend a lot of time thinking about what’s wrong with us, why we think we can never be better, and what should be different about our lives or our histories. We can re-experience painful or shameful memories in any moment. In ACT, we practice contacting and moving towards what’s important to us while learning ways to deal with what gets in our way–especially uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.

It’s never too late to get help.

We’ve worked with people who were able to lead new lives after struggling with trauma and PTSD for decades. We can’t erase what happened to you, but we can help you free yourself from its influence on how you live your life.

If you would like to see if one our therapists might be a good match, please call us at 503-281-4852 or contact us using the form below:

What Makes Us Unique

Portland Psychotherapy is a clinic, research & training center with a unique business model that funds scientific research. This results in a team of therapists who are exceptionally well-trained and knowledgeable about their areas of specialty.