A soldier returns from war unable to get the experiences of battle out of their head. A firefighter can never lose the images of a fire, and the nights are filled with anxiety. A young woman walks to her place of study full of trepidation, anxiety and self-loathing because of a traumatic event she witnessed.
In common, each is suffering from the anxiety disorder PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).
The woman is 21 years old, Alyssa. Today, confident and self-assured, few would guess that when she was nineteen she was diagnosed with the stress disorder.
‘My diagnosis came when I went to University, it was a big transition, moving away from home and family, the change in environment brought an event I had witnessed to the forefront and I immediately noticed a change in myself.’
Alyssa had witnessed a harrowing and traumatic event when she was sixteen, leaving emotional wounds that time had being unable to heal, and disturbing flashbacks and nightmares that created symptoms that impacted both her mental and physical health.
She felt guilt that she had failed to do something, which left her unable to forgive herself. Worse, as is the case with PTSD, the memory felt more recent than it should.
For 2 years she kept it in and struggled with trying to maintain a social life, stay ahead of her studies and maintain a part-time job. But it was a balancing act that couldn’t be maintained and both family and friends had noticed that something wasn’t right.
‘I felt isolated from the people around me and became detached, and I suffered anxiety attacks and depression. At first I didn’t understand the link from the event to the symptoms but I was constantly feeling as if I was being judged and a burden to people, which impacted how I interacted.’
Eventually Alyssa reached out to student services and was guided to a counsellor, but as resources were so stretched she only had access every 3 weeks. ‘I struggled on but knew I needed help. Eventually I had to go private, which I appreciate is not an option for everyone.’
Alyssa started an intensive course of psychotherapy, with a psychoanalyst breaking down the illnesses and how the treatment would challenge them. She undertook hypnotherapy, and was guided through the event that triggered the PTSD in a way that normalised the experience. And by normalising it she was able to challenge the anxiety, fear and guilt.
After a summer of psychotherapy, her health transformed, she wrote an article and shared it publicly. Friends and family immediately reached out and were incredibly supportive but most important to Alyssa was that two of her friends shared their own struggles with her, and she was able to help them. ‘What I found shocking was that until that article I didn’t know, and vice-versa.’ This is often the case with a mental health related illness.
‘My illness has taught me invaluable life skills. I’ve learnt that it’s so important to challenge yourself and to reach out for help, because I did I now feel like someone that I would want to speak to. I’m confident, I self-love, I feel like me again. I wouldn’t have had any of this without the therapy.’
Alyssa’s story highlight’s again the nuances of mental health illness and the need for us to
better understand all its forms, causes, and symptoms. And it’s something that Alyssa herself will be taking further as she continues to help others.
‘I think there’s a need for grassroots mental health education. We have 4 hours for physical health at school but there is nothing for mental health and that needs to change.’
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after being involved in, or witnessing, traumatic events. It is not a sign of not a sign of weakness; anyone can be affected.
A wide range of events can cause PTSD, from being in a car crash, a traumatic childbirth, losing someone close to you in upsetting circumstances, being assaulted, to witnessing a crash, and because the symptoms don't always first appear, the link to the event isn’t always apparent. But if you experience trauma, it’s natural that it can have an impact on your life.
Recognise the risks and know the signs
PTSD can cause disturbing flashbacks and recurring nightmares. may also cause physical symptoms associated with anxiety, such as palpitations, diarrhoea and headaches.