Knowing the symptoms of PTSD helps abuse survivors get the right support
The period following abuse is inevitably difficult for survivors. In addition to whatever physical recovery is needed, emotional upheaval is common, as are loss of trust and damage to one’s sense of safety and well-being. Despite this, as a therapist I am often surprised by abuse survivors’ resilience. Their ability to put their lives back together is astounding, especially when they have the right support through the process.
For some survivors, though, the abuse experience remains or later becomes almost unbearably intense and ever present in their day-to-day lives—it’s as if they are reliving it rather than gaining distance from it. New feelings, thinking patterns, and behaviors can take control of their lives, isolating them from others, changing their level of functioning in one or many areas. Many of these survivors are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an anxiety disorder stemming from one or more traumatic experiences. In some instances, PTSD develops long after the abuse is over.
An estimated one in three sexual-assault survivors will develop PTSD during her life, and several studies have linked domestic violence and PTSD.
Could PTSD be complicating your road to recovery? Knowing the symptoms can help you understand what you’re going through, but always consult a professional when you need help, whether you think you may have PTSD or not.
The symptoms of PTSD fall into three general categories:
1. Re-experiencing symptoms are those in which the abuse experience intrudes on the person intensely and regularly. They can take the form of nightmares, flashbacks in which the person feels he is reliving the abuse, and intrusive recollections of the abuse that forcefully interfere with the sufferer’s day-to-day life.
2. Avoidance symptoms are those in which the sufferer has the compulsion to take persistent and sometimes extreme measures to avoid reminders of the abuse. Although it is normal for a survivor to feel she does not want to revisit the abuse experience, with PTSD, there is a sense of urgency about the avoidance that can interfere with everyday functioning. Avoidance symptoms can also include forgetting important aspects of the abuse experience, loss of interest in once-enjoyable interests and activities, and feeling alienated or detached from others.
3. Arousal symptoms are those in which the person often feels “revved up” and is unable to rest, relax, or be at peace in a normal way. These can take the form of sleep disturbance, startling very easily, and irritability.
Since no two people or two abuse situations are exactly the same, abuse survivors’ experiences vary. There is no such thing as a “normal” response to being abused, and many survivors experience many of the problems listed above during the first weeks following abuse. However, if an abuse survivor is feeling overwhelmed long after the abuse is over or feels debilitated by her response to the abuse, she is not alone or strange—but it’s important to seek help. Learning more about PTSD, on your own or through a mental-health professional, can be empowering and helpful. PTSD is a treatable condition, and help and support are available.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is a good resource for further information about PTSD. It has an online screening tool for PTSD that you can print out to discuss with a treatment professional.
Susan Lemere is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.
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