It won’t come as a shock to learn that that more of us than ever are struggling with our mental health. The director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) pulled no punches when he said in March that the Covid-19 pandemic had caused more “mass trauma” than World War II. Seeing loved ones ill, losing jobs, being more isolated hasn't been easy on any of us, not least frontline NHS workers. One in seven have reported symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “There are reports of higher levels of PTSD in front line staff such as doctors and nurses who’ve experienced daily trauma such as they’ve never seen before in terms of volume and length of exposure,” confirms psychologist Dr Meg Arroll.
The NHS says that PTSD affects around one in every three people who have a traumatic experience. However, it’s not just Covid-related trauma that’s making headlines at the moment. More people are coming forward to share their personal experience of the condition that can have so many triggers from, childbirth, to traffic accidents, to miscarriage. This week labour MP Nadia Whittome, 24, and chef Gordon Ramsay’s daughter Holly Ramsay, 21, have revealed that they have experienced PTSD.
Nadia, Britain's youngest MP, announced she would be taking a step back from work to deal with PTSD. While she didn't give details, she explained "I feel it is important for me to be honest that it is mental ill-health I am suffering from – specifically post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
Holly meanwhile shared her experiences on her mental health podcast 21 and Over . "I went to university, studied fashion design and I loved it. But by the second half of the first year, I was being affected by my PTSD and I had no idea that this was happening. The PTSD was a result of two sexual assaults when I was 18. I didn't tell anyone about it until a year afterwards. I just buried it in a box in the back of my mind. [In hospital] is was where I was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression."
Holly, who still has therapy for her PTSD up to three times a week, said that by speaking out about her struggles she hoped she could help other people and break the stigma around mental health. She thanked her family they'd given 'the greatest emotional support' and that the situation had 'brought them closer in many ways.'
What is PTSD?
PTSD is often associated with war veterans, but women are actually twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with the condition says US National Center for PTSD. Women most often suffer from PTSD related to trauma from sexual assault, miscarriage and traumatic births, according to charity PTSD UK.
Holly and Nadia aren't the only high profile women to speak out about PTSD. Performer Lady Gaga suffered PTSD following sexual assault in 2019 (for which she sought among other things a therapy called EMDR ) while singer Ariana Grande spoke about her own PTSD symptoms following the bombing at her concert in Manchester in 2019.
PTSD is caused by trauma that you haven't fully processed, says neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart. “A trauma is anything that causes a psychological, emotional or social issue for someone as a consequence,” Tara tells us. “Trauma is most commonly attributed to abuse (physical, sexual, emotional or being a victim of violence or even witnessing violence) but it is subjective so the same event can be traumatic for one person but not another.”
Causes can include bereavement, burglary, terrorist attacks, kidnap a traumatic birth, miscarriage, and being in intensive care, says charity PTSD UK. Risk factors for developing PTSD include lack of support after the trauma, repeated trauma and a history of childhood trauma, the charity explains.
PTSD is a recognised condition and doctors look out for specific criteria when making a diagnosis, such as whether you've been exposed to or threatened with death, serious injury, or sexual violence, explains Dr Meg Arroll.
You can even experience it if the trauma happened indirectly, such as by being a medic on the frontline witnessing death, or if a close friend or family member was exposed to trauma that deeply affected you - all of these can result in PTSD.
“People who repeatedly watched TV imagery of the twin towers falling during 9/11 but had no personal loss or connection to the events in NYC developed PTSD,” says Dr Tara.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
1. Flashbacks and nightmares
Months or years may have passed since your initial trauma, but it's normal to relive the event. If you experience flashback and nightmares, it could be a sign that you've got PTSD, says Dr Tara.
2. Avoiding places and situations
It’s natural to want to steer clear situations or places that remind you of your trauma to avoid being triggered by the memory, however, staying away from places, events and objects that remind you of the experience is a common symptom of PTSD. The need to be busy all the time could also a sign of PTSD.
3. Feeling down
Feeling isolated, loss of interest in hobbies and finding it difficult to be in a good mood are all side effects of PTSD, explains Dr Meg.
4. Feeling jumpy
We're all familiar with being on edge after something upsetting happens and if you've got PTSD this is a feeling you'll know all too well. “Problems with concentration, sleep disturbance, irritability or aggression, destructive behaviour, heightened startle reaction and hypervigilance are all signs of PTSD,” says Dr Meg.
5. Feeling detached from the world
If you have PTSD you might feel like an outsider or observer a lot of the time, detached from yourself as if you're watching your life from above, or in a dream.
What can help with PTSD?
“Clinically diagnosed PTSD requires therapy from a professional,” says Tara. “If you think you have a mild form of suffering from stress as a result of something unwelcome in your life, or something going wrong, then it is important to process the emotions fully,” she adds.
“PTSD is as a result of not being able to process the emotions which is why flashbacks are a big part of it. This may be achieved by journaling , speaking openly about the trigger and the resultant symptoms, and specific approaches to individual symptoms eg with hypervigilance: notice when you do it, what makes it worse, when you feel safe enough for it not to be an issue and practice whatever works to make it dissipate such as using an affirmation or focusing on your breathing ."
The PTSD UK website recommends any mood-boosting activity too, from wild swimming to beachcombing.
If you’re is experiencing symptoms of PTSD, you shouldn’t hesitate to consult your GP who will refer you to appropriate services, says Dr Meg. “In the UK the primary treatments for PTSD are psychological therapies such as CBT and mediations, or a combination of both. Other modalities such as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing ( EMDR ) are sometimes used but the mechanisms of this treatment are still in question.”
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