Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) consists of common symptoms displayed by survivors after natural or man-made disaster, combat, serious accident, witnessing the violent death of others, or being the victim of torture, terrorism, rape, abuse, or other crime. All these events fall outside the range of ‘normal’ human experience and leave the sufferer with delayed and/or protracted intrusive responses, which can be so debilitating, that they prevent normal day-to-day life.
Those who have been abused often experience long-term feelings and reactions which can cause a lot of distress. They may have flashbacks, sudden feelings of anxiety, an inability to concentrate or feel as though everything is somehow unreal. These reactions and feelings are a comparatively normal reaction to a traumatic event or events and are called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is estimated that around 20% of people experiencing traumatic events such as physical or sexual assault may develop PTSD.
The extent of PTSD varies from person to person, and can occur while still in the abusive relationship or after it has ended, can last only a short time or can remain for years. In any case it is advisable to seek the help of a counsellor or therapist to help come to terms with the events which have led to PTSD and explore ways to either lessen them or their impact.
The following are symptoms experienced by people suffering from PTSD, though this list was created from a variety of sources and does not consitute a medical description:
- Flashbacks. Re-experiencing a traumatic event, such as a battering or rape, but also things said, gestures, aggression. Flashbacks are commonly triggered by stimuli which in some way link the present with the past, eg seeing a knife similar to one with which you were threatened, re-visiting a place in which you were emotionally or verbally abused, etc. If you find yourself avoiding certain places, activities or objects, this could be because they act as a trigger to the abuse. A flashback is not just a memory of an event, but the re-experiencing of it, ie your body reacts as though the danger were in the present rather than in the past.
- Dreams/Nightmares and Sleep Disturbances. These dreams can be in the form of re-enacting or changing what happened. Some survivors wake at night in a state of anxiety or suffer from insomnia.
- Numbness and Emotional Blunting. This is an extremely useful survival tool which enabled us to keep going, especially where the abuse is still ongoing. But once the trauma, stress and real danger has passed, it prevents us from dealing with the issues and moving on.
- Detachment from Other People. You may feel different, as though you were physically in the same world, but actually living in a parallel universe, not part of it. Also, you may feel unable to respond “normally” to others, interact properly. You may avoid people generally, or avoid eye contact.
- Unresponsiveness to Surroundings. You may feel almost trance-like or “switch off” and have to make a concerted effort to concentrate on your surroundings. More seriously, you may dissociate (there are several different types) and either be totally detached from or unable to react to the outside world.
- Anhedonia. This basically means an inability to feel pleasure. You may be able to see and hear the things that would usually give pleasure (children playing or laughing, sunshine, blue sky, bird singing), but cannot feel anything. You feel devoid of any emotion.
- Avoidance of anything that may remind you fo the abuse or trigger flashbacks. See ‘Flashbacks’, above.
- Acute Bursts of Fear or Panic. Sudden fear or panic, often for no apparent reason Hyperarousal and/or Enhanced Startle Reaction. This means not simply that you may be easily startled, but that when startled, the reaction is extreme. If suffering from Hyperarousal, you may constantly be in ‘fight or flight‘ mode. Some survivors have found that these responses increase initialy as the numbness and emotional blunting wears off.
- Depression and Anxiety. Although it is possible to experience depression and/or anxiety without suffering from PTSD, where these symptoms coincide with others, they form part of the disorder.
- Suicidal Ideation. The urge to harm or even kill oneself. If you feel you may harm yourself, please do seek support as soon as possible.
Although not all abused persons experience all the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, most experience a number of these reactions. If you recognise yourself in several of the above, it is advisable to visit your local GP who will be able to offer help and further support.
It has also got to be noted that not only the person being abused directly can suffer from PTSD, but that children, either living in a home where the mother is being abused or being abused themselves, can also suffer from the disorder.
The good news is that PTSD does not have to last forever, it is not a life sentence. PTSD in adults and in children can be treated successfully and often the symptoms get less and less frequent over time as we naturally work through the issues which domestic abuse has left us with.