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PTSD? What Is It? How Can We Help?

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You may be familiar with the acronym "PTSD." It stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Is there anything we can do to help those who suffer from PTSD?

As a PTSD sufferer myself, I can empathize with others who share this disorder. Many people, however, have little or no idea of what to do when they encounter it. Here are some practical suggestions from my first-hand experience.

First, one must understand what PTSD is, and what causes it. PTSD can develop in people who experience intense fear, helplessness and horror from an overwhelming event that causes fear for their lives. Factors that affect whether a person will develop PTSD include the intensity and duration of the trauma, whether there was physical hurt, how much control (if any) the person had, how much help and support (if any) was received afterward, and how much personal resilience was available for the person to draw on.

PTSD is commonly associated with those who have witnessed or participated in acts of war. Other traumas that can lead to the disorder include: child abuse, rape, natural disasters, severe accidents and life threatening illnesses. Even watching or listening as others experience these traumatic events can lead to PTSD.

PTSD sufferers exhibit three main symptoms in varying degrees:

  • "Flashbacks" (otherwise known as intrusive memories)
  • Avoidance and numbing
  • Nervous system hyperarousal

Flashbacks involve re-experiencing a trauma. Triggers such as sights, sounds, or smells can provoke this reaction. Re-experiencing the past horror can be so traumatic for sufferers that it prompts them to avoid triggers that may lead to a flashback—even to the point of avoiding simple conversations.

The increased anxiety experienced in PTSD causes an emotional arousal that is in "overdrive." This overstimulation of the nervous system causes sleep disturbances such as nightmares and insomnia, and emotional symptoms such as extreme irritability and over-reactive anger, fear and shame. Overwhelming shame, in turn, may lead to self-destructive behavior.

Related problems often include depression and mistrust of others. Bullies typically pick on those who have previously been victimized, leading to further trauma, so the cycle continues.

Understanding PTSD can go a long way toward helping us reach out to those who suffer from it. But how can we put our understanding into action most effectively? One way to help is by looking and listening for the "hurting" person who wants to speak but cannot seem to get the words out. At the same time, it is important to be aware that sometimes individuals will not want to talk about their PTSD experiences—they simply need friendship. The important point is to be ready and willing to communicate nonjudgmentally.

When a PTSD sufferer shares information about the triggers that cause flashbacks, it is important to, as much as possible, compassionately attempt to avoid actions or comments that might serve as triggers. Where avoidance is impossible, you can warn the PTSD survivor ahead of time about the coming trigger. That way, at least others with the information will understand why the person may need to step away for a period of time.

Finally, we should understand that some people with PTSD take medication daily to cope with their condition. Of course, medication cannot heal—only God is our healer. PTSD sufferers must work hard to overcome and "rewire" their minds. I have found it helpful to meditate on these words from Philippians 4:6–8: "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things." I know this from personal experience!

To learn more about God’s role as our Healer, read our booklet Does God Heal Today? For further encouragement, please read Your Ultimate Destiny. It will all be worth it in the end—or, should I say, the beginning!