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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

a condition caused by a distressing and traumatic experience with symptoms such as intense flashbacks or nightmares

At some point in our lives, many of us experience some sort of trauma. This can be from a life-threatening event, witnessing death or seeing a serious injury. Trauma can be a single incident, like a fire or a car accident, or it can be complex, involving repeated events such as childhood abuse or domestic violence. 

After experiencing trauma, it’s usual to notice changes in mood, increased anxiety or difficulty sleeping. For most people, these challenges are temporary and improve within a few months. However, for some, these difficulties persist for much longer. When this happens, it may lead to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s a lot more common than you think – an estimated 1 in 3 people who experience a traumatic event is expected to develop PTSD.

Common myths about PTSD

only people in the army get PTSD 

While PTSD is often associated with military personnel due to their exposure to combat, it can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. This includes survivors of natural disasters, serious accidents, personal assaults or abuse. 

trauma always leads to PTSD

Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. Many people go through traumatic events and experience temporary distress but can recover with time and support. Factors such as the nature of the trauma, resilience and the availability of support systems play significant roles in whether someone develops PTSD. 

people with PTSD are weak

Developing PTSD has nothing to do with personal strength or level of violence. It is a mental health condition that can affect anyone, regardless of their strength and resilience. It is not a sign of weakness nor a sign of anger but a response to overwhelming stress.

Risk factors

It is not possible to predict who will develop PTSD, but some factors that make it more likely are: 

  • Lack of social support and positive role models 
  • Loneliness 
  • Previous trauma or witnessing trauma happening to someone else 
  • Multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences such as physical abuse, or living with someone with a substance dependency or may have spent time in prison 
  • Life stressors, particularly if they are multiple and long-term such as poverty, unemployment, ill health or racism 

What is PTSD? 

PTSD is a condition that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. These distressing events can include natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist acts, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assaults. 

Symptoms 

People can experience PTSD differently. Some of the core symptoms include:

  • Re-experiencing the event (e.g., dreams or intrusive thoughts about what happened) 
  • Avoiding places, people or activities that remind us of the trauma 
  • Dissociation 
  • Altered feelings or mood (e.g., depression, anxiety, agitation) 
  • Voices and sensory disturbances. 

Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) has three additional criteria: 

  • Emotional dysregulation (e.g., anger, panic attacks) 
  • Feeling like a failure or worthless 
  • Difficulties with close relationships. 

“Looking back, I can see I’ve lived with trauma my whole life because trauma doesn’t erupt from nothing, there has to be roots somewhere. But like many people, I had tried to just get on with it and put the past behind me, focus on the future. But I consistently found that whenever I tried to take steps to create more of the life that I want, I would get so far before old feelings would start to surface and I’d feel like I got pulled right back into the same space of ‘why am I feeling like this? I can’t deal with this stuff. 

Antony talks about his experience with PTSD and how Change Mental Health‘s The Signature Project service in Edinburgh has supported him. Read more here 

I think I have PTSD; what should I do? 

The good news is that we can recover from PTSD if we take some steady yet concrete steps and get support. While it is important to get medical help, it is important to also talk about our thoughts and feelings to friends, family or people who have had similar experiences in our community. Here are some ways you can support yourself: 

Plan ahead  

It can be helpful to create a detailed plan for your day. It can provide a sense of control and help you feel more prepared for whatever comes your way. When planning, include breaks or quiet moments for yourself if needed. During these periods, try to schedule fun and distracting activities to help you relax, lift your mood and unwind from any symptoms or emotions that may arise.

Remind yourself you are safe  

In moments of distress, grounding yourself in the knowledge that you are secure can be a powerful coping strategy. Simple, helpful reminders like “I’m not in danger” can help reset your brain during a triggering experience Attempting to learn a new skill during a triggering experience can be difficult, so it is useful to practice this technique repeatedly before you experience them again. 

Communicate boundaries and establish a support buddy system

Let friends and family know about your feelings and boundaries. Clear communication helps them understand how to support you during certain situations. Identify someone you trust to be your support person. Having a friend or family member by your side can provide reassurance and understanding.  

Choose a comfortable location with familiar items  

Choose a secure location, whether at home or a private event, to prioritise your safety. Bring familiar items like a favourite movie or soothing music for comfort and control. If you plan to stay home, consider getting a weighted blanket. With the pressure applied to your body, your nervous system starts to relax. 

Breathing and grounding  

Practice deep breathing to counter anxiety. Deep breaths signal the brain to calm down. In a crisis, repeat this practice for effectiveness. Try slow breathing, with an emphasis on belly breathing. Inhale for 3 to 4 counts, exhale for 6 to 8 counts. Focus on the cool air in and the warm air out. Try grounding techniques such as feeling the texture of an object or observing your surroundings. 

How do I support someone with PTSD? 

Supporting someone with PTSD can be challenging, but your support can make a significant difference in their recovery. Here are some effective ways to support someone with PTSD: 

Educate yourself

Understanding PTSD is crucial when supporting someone who has it. Knowledge will equip you to respond more empathetically and effectively. There are numerous resources available, including books, articles and self-help guides on the NHS inform website.

Listen and validate

Listening without judgement while validating their feelings can make a significant difference. Allow your loved one to talk about their experiences and emotions at their own pace, without pushing them to share more than they are comfortable with. Acknowledge their pain and let them know that their reactions are understandable and valid.

Encourage treatment

Encourage your loved one to seek help from a professional, particularly from one who specialises in PTSD, and support them through their treatment journey. This might involve helping them find a suitable therapist, offering to accompany them to appointments or simply being a source of encouragement as they navigate their treatment plan.

Create a safe environment

Creating a safe and stable environment means being mindful of their triggers and working to minimise stressors in their surroundings. Establishing a routine can provide a sense of normality and security. Respect their boundaries and understand that certain places, sounds or situations might be overwhelming for them.

contact

Our Advice and Support Service is open Monday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm, where advisers can signpost you to local support that most fits your needs, including our Change Mental Health services. We offer initial advice on money worries and help to deal with emergencies.

Contact 0808 8010 515, email us at advice@changemh.org or fill out the enquiry form on the Advice and Support Service page.

Other support

  • The Signature Project in Edinburgh offers tailored support for men over 16 who have experienced trauma. It provides one-to-one sessions, stress management and peer support groups. The service aims to create a safe and non-judgmental environment where men can connect and communicate with one another. 

The Signature Project accepts both agency and self-referrals and can be contacted on 0131 374 7008 or by email at signature@changemh.org. 

  • PTSD UK offers extensive resources on PTSD and C-PTSD, including symptoms, treatments and personal stories, aimed at helping those affected by trauma. PTSD UK also runs various campaigns and events to support individuals and families coping with PTSD. 
  • Combat Stress provides mental health support for veterans suffering from conditions like PTSD. They offer a range of services, including an intensive PTSD treatment programme, peer support, and occupational therapy, helping veterans manage their symptoms and reintegrate into civilian life. 

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