Many people are familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a common mental health condition that affects around 6% of the population. But studying the symptoms of PTSD and actually experiencing it are two very different things. What does PTSD actually feel like for people who have it? And what can you do if you experience some of these things?
In this article, we’ll describe what PTSD is, what it feels like for those who live with it, and what you can do if you have (or you believe you have) PTSD.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD can develop after someone goes through a traumatic event. A traumatic event can be an experience that feels or is life-threatening, or that otherwise instills intense feelings of terror, but the most common types of traumatic events include:
- Sexual or physical assault
- Childhood abuse
- Natural disasters
- Medical trauma or surgery
- Going into combat
More people experience traumatic events than you might expect. Some reports estimate that around 50 to 60% of people will experience at least one clearly traumatic event, in their lifetimes.
But not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. In fact, only around 6% of the general population will have PTSD at some point in their lives. There’s no one explanation for why some people, and not others, develop PTSD after a traumatic event. Some possible risk factors include the strength of your support system, genetics, and early childhood history of trauma. Developing PTSD is never a sign of weakness, nor is it a mental defect.
Some of the symptoms of PTSD include:
- Having recurring nightmares about the traumatic event, or waking flashbacks of the event
- Trying to avoid thoughts or reminders about the event
- Feeling constantly on-edge or hypervigilant of your surroundings
PTSD is a treatable disorder, and many people have been able to manage their symptoms to a point where they live well with PTSD. However, if left untreated, PTSD can severely disrupt people’s lives and even lead to death by suicide.
What Does PTSD Feel Like?
Again, knowing about the causes and symptoms of PTSD is one thing. — but having the experience of actually living with PTSD is entirely another. What does it feel like to live with PTSD symptoms on a day-to-day basis?
Here are four in-depth descriptions of what life with (untreated) PTSD actually feels like for many people.
Living with PTSD feels like you’re living your worst nightmare over and over again.
One of the main symptoms of PTSD is having nightmares, or flashbacks, that rehash the traumatic event. People with PTSD relive their traumatic experience over and over again in their minds, while sleeping, awake, or both.
Flashbacks often feel so real that the person with PTSD believes themselves to be experiencing the traumatic event all over again. Although PTSD isn’t a psychotic disorder, someone with PTSD can have hallucinations of people and places related to the traumatic event when they’re having a flashback.
Obviously, this is a terrifying experience. Some people are able to put traumatic events in the past, but people with PTSD are forced to relive the scariest moments of their lives over and over again.
Living with PTSD makes you want to numb the pain.
PTSD and substance use disorder are highly interlinked. Some reports say that up to 50% of people who are treated for a drug or alcohol addiction also have symptoms of PTSD.
The exact relationship between substance use and PTSD is difficult to determine because each increases your risk for the other. Researchers say that having a drug or alcohol addiction may put people at a higher risk of experiencing a traumatic event, to begin with.
Still, there’s no denying that experiencing a traumatic event also makes you more likely to develop substance use disorder. One of the hallmarks of PTSD is the desire to avoid thinking about or being reminded of the traumatic experience. Often, people with PTSD go to great lengths to try to forget — including using drugs and alcohol.
Some people may spend a long time numbing their PTSD symptoms through drug and alcohol use, only for their symptoms to come back stronger than ever after they decide to get sober. Drugs and alcohol are not helpful coping strategies for PTSD, and some drugs may even make PTSD symptoms worse.
Living with PTSD feels like being constantly on-edge.
One of the officially recognized symptoms of PTSD is hypervigilance, a psychological term that means being on-edge or watchful of your surroundings. Consider how you feel when walking through a haunted house; you know that, at any moment, a person disguised as a monster will jump out to scare you.
This is what life for many people with PTSD is like, except that the feeling never takes a break or goes away. Your body doesn’t allow you to relax, because PTSD convinces you that you are constantly in danger. You are always on alert, ready to fight (or flee from) any possible dangers. Having your fight-flight-or-freeze response constantly activated has severely harmful consequences for your body and mind.
Living with PTSD feels like hiding your true self.
We’ve come a long way in terms of mental health awareness, but the stigma against people who live with mental illness is still high. This stigma can make people with PTSD (and other mental health conditions) feel like they need to hide their diagnosis. And hiding it often leads to feelings of shame and embarrassment.
Having PTSD is not your fault. Although mental health stigma may try to convince you that living with PTSD is something shameful that you need to hide, it’s important that you try to talk back against this voice. Stigma can worsen many mental health conditions, including PTSD, partly by preventing people from getting the mental health treatment they need.
PTSD Treatment Works
The good news is that there is effective treatment available for PTSD. With proper care, you can manage your PTSD symptoms, begin healing, and even thrive. The most important thing is to take the first step and get connected with professionals who can help.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS therapy, is an innovative brain stimulation technique that has helped many people recover from PTSD. It was originally used (and is FDA-approved) to address treatment-resistant depression but has now been successfully used as a treatment for other conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, and PTSD.
TMS therapy works by stimulating the areas of your brain that PTSD affects. This is done by using electromagnetic coils, a technology similar to that used for MRI scans. TMS therapy is completely non-invasive and usually has very few side effects. Many people choose TMS because they can’t tolerate the side effects of psychiatric medications.
Are you ready to start your healing journey with TMS? Southern Colorado TMS is the leading provider of TMS therapy in our region. Get in touch with us today for more information about how we can help you start living a life that’s free of daily PTSD symptoms.