Working Through Post-Traumatic Stress

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 17-year-old girl. Ten months ago, my family and I were held captive in our own house. It was the most terrifying and scary night of our lives. We’ve been robbed a few times before, but never with us inside.

We were there for four hours with two guys inside our home, moving and throwing everything around, searching for money, jewelry, etc. They threatened us and said that they would kill us, that they would kidnap me, and that they would burn down our home.

That was a Wednesday. On Tuesday, when I went to school, I talked to my school’s psychologist, but I don’t really trust him, and didn’t actually take his advice too seriously. I talked instead to a teacher I do trust, and she really helped me deal with the fear, but I still have post-traumatic stress.

Not only has that experience had an emotional influence on my life, but I’ve also gained weight, and that has caused me to lose self-esteem.

It’s been almost a year already since that happened, and I still have fear every night and day. My life feels strange, and I don’t feel well at all.

Psychologist’s Reply

I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been to spend hours not knowing if you would be severely hurt, or even be able to escape with your life. Given also that your home has been broken into several times before, it is not surprising that the fear and uncertainty is negatively affecting your life. As such, you could be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the DSM (which is the rule book for mental health diagnoses), the diagnostic criteria are quite complex. The person must have been exposed to a traumatic event that involved actual or threatened injury which elicited a response of intense fear, helplessness or horror (Criterion A). The person must experience an intrusive recollection involving one or more of the following: flashback memories, recurring distressing dreams, subjective re-experiencing of the traumatic event, or intense negative psychological or physiological response to any objective or subjective reminder of the traumatic event (Criterion B).

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Also, the person must be avoiding stimuli associated with the trauma, and have a numbing of general responsiveness that was not present before the trauma (Criterion C). This involves things like avoiding thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma, an inability to remember important parts of what happened, and a restricted range of affect. The person must also have persistent symptoms of increased arousal, also called hyper-arousal, not present before the trauma (Criterion D). These are all physiological response issues, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, or problems with anger, concentration, or hypervigilance. Additional symptoms include irritability, angry outbursts, increased startle response, and concentration or sleep problems.

It is difficult from your description to determine if you meet all the criteria, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you do. Even if you do not, it sounds like you need professional assistance to help you heal from the trauma. It is unfortunate that you do not trust your school psychologist because treatment for PTSD is complex, and requires more than just a general knowledge of how to decrease fear and anxiety. Maybe you can find another mental health professional who inspires more confidence. Hopefully the new psychologist will be trained in the newest methods for treating trauma, which include trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) (the treatment of choice of the United States Department of Defense) and Eye Movement and Desensitization Refocusing (EMDR). Treatment of PTSD can be a challenge, but the results will be worth it.

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