Do you know what it’s like to live in a constant state of fear? To become significantly startled by a gentle knock on the door or the bark of your neighbor’s dog? To worry about what might happen to you if you leave the house? To expect injury or even death every single day of your life? This is a mere glimpse into what it’s like to live with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Simply put, PTSD is a mental health condition that one may develop after experiencing a traumatic event. Many associate PTSD with war veterans, but there’s a wide scope of individuals affected by the illness: for example, victims of physical or sexual assault, firefighters, policemen, refugees, those diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, and yes, members of the armed forces.
Again, the common thread is one’s exposure to a distressing incident; however, individuals must also must meet specific criteria before they can be officially diagnosed with this disorder. First, one must have experienced actual or threatened death, injury, or sexual violence in one capacity or another—this might be a first-hand, personal encounter or their witnessing of said trauma as it happens to another individual. They then experience a number of symptoms such as recurrent nightmares about the traumatic event, flashbacks to the event, and intense psychological distress when reminded of the event. Additionally, the individual goes out of his or her way to avoid stimuli related to the trauma and experiences harmful thoughts as well as negative moods.
But aside from this diagnostic criteria, aside from all the technicalities… what does it truly feel like to have PTSD? To live in the aftermath of experiencing an extraordinary degree of trauma?
Living in Fear and Uncertainty
Candice Owrey, a licensed professional counselor who works with individuals affected by PTSD every single day, says that it’s different for everybody. One can present any number or combination of symptoms (such as those mentioned above), but there is a common experience: hypervigilance. “These individuals feel like they are constantly looking over their shoulder. I have men who fought overseas for the military and even though they are now safe on American soil, they still have to sit facing the door, ready to fight if needed.”
Similarly, Owrey’s clients who were victims of rape feel the same need to guard the door and remain on high alert. “They also generally do not feel comfortable sitting with their back to a door. These individuals are constantly alert. We call this being hypervigilant,” she explains. Here’s how one of her clients described it:
Have you ever been to one of those haunted houses set up at Halloween? You know that fear as you are waiting in line? You know people are going to jump out at you. You know they aren’t really killers. It’s fake but you still scream. I feel that way every single day I have to leave my house. I shake, sweat, and I feel petrified. Imagine having the feelings you have while going through a haunted house. That’s my life every day. I tell myself the experience isn’t real… but the feelings I have are real.
Owrey goes on to explain how her clients and other PTSD sufferers are at risk of being triggered on an everyday basis, regardless of where they are or what they’re doing: “These individuals have random triggers around them all of the time. Sometimes, they are able to predict the triggers. This is one of the areas we work on in therapy. Other times, it happens randomly. I frequently get calls from my clients where they are on the other end of the phone saying, ‘I’m at the mall. I’m hiding in the bathroom freaking out. I saw this guy who looks like my attacker. I know it isn’t him, but my heart is beating fast, I’m sweating, and I’m crying. I feel petrified.’ There is no way to predict when you are going to see someone, smell something, or hear something that will be the trigger. You can have a vague understanding, but this is part of the reason for the hypervigilance I mentioned earlier. These individuals live through something very difficult… and it doesn’t end there. They sadly reexperience the event repeatedly. It’s like they are back in the horrible moment and their body sometimes feels the same event as well.”
Fortunately, there is help and hope for those who suffer with PTSD. Both medication (e.g., antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications) and therapy can effectively treat this illness and help to lessen the harmful symptoms that come with it, like hypervigilance. If you or someone you know is suffering with PTSD, click here to see one of our counselors as early as today.