Guest blog post by Martha (Marty) Dennen, LCPC, SEP
“Will PTSD go away without treatment” is an often-asked question in my office. The short answer is that with treatment PTSD symptoms can go away or greatly lessen. Unfortunately, untreated PTSD often results in more suffering, decreased functioning, and increased depression and anxiety symptoms. So, how do you know if you need help?
What is PTSD?
Approximately 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. And 20% of those individuals will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the event. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury.
Traumatic events could be things like a natural disaster, serious accident, a terrorist act, war or combat, rape or other violent personal assault. There is some evidence that those who experienced trauma in infancy, childhood, or adolescence are more susceptible to developing PTSD when exposed to trauma as adults.
But another category of PTSD called complex PTSD, sometimes referred to as C-PTSD, takes the diagnosis beyond single events. While not yet officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, C-PTSD is increasingly being diagnosed by physicians and mental health professionals. C-PTSD results from chronic exposure to trauma from such things as childhood abuse or neglect, domestic violence, and systemic trauma like human trafficking.
Whether from a single event or chronic exposure, response to trauma can involve intense fear and feelings of helplessness, anxiety, or horror. Most people who experience a traumatic event return to normal functioning in a very short period of time after the event. For others, though, the feelings persist and don’t go away. Symptoms develop (see below) and begin to significantly disrupt everyday life.
If these responses to the trauma continue, worsen, last for months or even years, and/or interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may be experiencing PTSD.
A PTSD diagnosis can include an array of symptoms:
- Nightmares and sleeplessness
- Severe anxiety and panic attacks
- Uncontrollable thoughts about the event
- Intense fear
- Distorted reality of past or current events
- Self-destructive thoughts and/or actions
- Avoiding situations that trigger you or remind you of the trauma
Sometimes PTSD doesn’t develop immediately. In fact, PTSD can be triggered years later, like in the case of childhood trauma and abuse. For people living with PTSD, their activated nervous system causes them to still actively remember or relive the trauma as if it is still happening.
Why is PTSD Not Just Stress?
Typically, when we experience stress from what the body perceives as a threat, it creates a psychological and physical response called the fight or flight response. Your brain triggers the release of adrenaline makingOnce the threat has passed, your brain triggers the release of different hormones to return everything back to normal.
For those suffering with PTSD, their response to stress is intensified beyond what is experienced normally. Additionally, instead of the fight/flight response being a brief experience, those with PTSD are in a constant state of “high alert.” Basically, their stress response did not turn off after the traumatic event. This type of chronic stress can lead to extreme anxiety and hyper-alertness, even to simple situations like going out to dinner with friends.
With the experience of constant, intense stress, it can be difficult to feel normal and healthy. The constant nervous system arousal is distracting and exhausting. To find relief, someone struggling with PTSD may engage in self-medicating or self-destructive behaviors in an effort to ease or suppress the symptoms.
It is natural to be wonder if PTSD will go away without treatment. It’s also normal to wonder how long the symptoms will last and if it will ever go away. However, PTSD is a very individualized disorder, affecting each person differently. There are predictors, though, of how long PTSD symptoms last and whether or not it will ever go away.
- who have experienced childhood trauma,
- with multiple traumatic events,
- who have concurrent mental health struggles,
- who use no or few coping strategies, and
- those who have little social support.
So to answer your main question of will my PTSD go away without treatment… possibly. The fewer of these factors you have, the greater the likelihood your PTSD will go away. So for a handful of individuals, PTSD may go away without treatment. However, the majority of people with PTSD need professional treatment to recover. The following are effective treatments for this disorder:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can teach you skills to identify your triggers and develop tools to manage your symptoms. This treatment can include exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring.
Exposure therapy helps you face and control your fear by gradually exposing you to your experienced trauma in a healthy, safe way. Using imagining, writing, or visiting a specific location, you and your therapist can work on managing and coping with your feelings.
Cognitive restructuring helps you understand the traumatic event, along with your memories and emotions that surround it. Some individuals who suffer from PTSD feel guilt or shame about something that is not their fault. Working together with your therapist to explore the event and understand it in a realistic way can help you process and understand what you are experiencing.
Somatic Experiencing (SE)
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body-oriented therapy for PTSD and traumatic stress. This therapy is in line with research that indicates trauma is primarily housed and experienced in the body. SE focuses on developing awareness of inner physical sensations, both those associated with traumatic memory and those with pleasant memory. As capacity and tolerance for sensation grows, arousal in your nervous system can be mediated.
The treatment goal of SE is twofold: (1) to release PTSD symptoms held in the nervous system through completing self-protective, fight/flight responses and (2) to return the nervous system to regulation. SE works slowly, starting by creating a safe environment, gently increasing body awareness, tracking the body’s cues for uncompleted responses, and supporting the completion of those responses. The SE therapist uses the therapeutic relationship to “co-regulate” your nervous system.
Many Somatic Experiencing therapists are trained in the use of touch to more directly intervene with the nervous system. Learn more about Somatic Experiencing therapy and how it is an effective solution for trauma, PTSD, or psychological stress here.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy
EMDR therapy has a significant amount of research backing its success in treating PTSD. This body-oriented therapy reconnects you in short doses to the images, self-thoughts, emotions, and body sensations associated with the trauma. This allows the natural processing system of your brain (most often in use during the Rapid Eye Movement phase of sleep) to unblock traumatic memories and move them towards resolution and balance.
This treatment is a combination of exposure therapy, cognitive processing, relaxation, and self-monitoring techniques can often provide relief quickly. PTSD from single event traumas is particularly responsive to this therapy, but even PTSD from multiple event traumas can be at least lessened and sometimes eliminated with this brief therapy.
Support groups offer you a safe place to explore and discuss your experiences, but also develop a sense of community with those who understand what you are going through. Millions of people are living with PTSD, and many help support each other daily, and it can be a very helpful part of treatment. Here is a list of resources to find in-person support groups near you or PTSD support groups online.
Animal Assisted Therapy
Animal Assisted Therapy has been shown to be helpful with reducing PTSD symptoms in some sufferers. While the use of dogs and horses in treatment are most studied, there is growing use of other trained therapy animals to help you find symptom relief for PTSD.
While medication for PTSD treatment has mixed success rates, antidepressants can help manage some PTSD symptoms, such as sadness, worry, and anger. Additionally, medications can be provided to help aid sleep and reduce nightmares. You and your primary care physician can work together to find the best medication and dose.
Coping skills are techniques and strategies you can use to regulate emotions, reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms, manage your thoughts, and control your behavior. It can give you the power to regain control instead of feeling like you are the victim of your trauma.
No one coping skill will work at all times, just as everyone will not find value in each strategy. With support and help, you will find what skills will benefit you most.
- Slow, controlled deep breathing
- Practicing mindfulness and being present moment to moment with your senses
- Regular exercise
- The use of trained support animals
Dangers Of Untreated PTSD
So, clearly PTSD rarely goes away without treatment. In fact, untreated PTSD can lead to other significant problems:
- Substance Abuse and Addiction: For many struggling with untreated PTSD, alcohol or drug use is a common choice for symptom relief. Unfortunately, these are only temporary solutions that can quickly lead to a serious addiction, complicating an already severe mental illness.
- Anger Management Issues: Recurring stress and anxiety can lead to uncontrollable outbursts of anger or rage. These outbursts may result in child or spousal abuse or public violence.
- Loneliness: Uncontrolled PTSD can make it very difficult to trust and bond with others, making it difficult to be around others. Additionally, you may avoid certain areas or situations that remind you of the trauma, causing you to isolate yourself.
- Severe Depression: Due to the perceived inability to control PTSD symptoms, it can lead to clinically significant depression and even suicidal thoughts, especially during a PTSD episode.
Our Body Holds The Key
So there is clear value in treatment. And we now have effective treatments for PTSD. We now know that when a trauma is experienced it is held much more in the body then in the brain. Our brain does a really good job of analyzing and judging what happened and how we responded. Listening to how the body felt and was impacted by the trauma is key to recovery.
Our bodies have a key system that is all about helping and supporting the body to survive. We are programmed to survive. Your body increases potential energy in response to a perceived threat, but was unable to release this excess energy after the traumatic event. Your body holds this trapped energy inside because you couldn’t get away, you couldn’t fight, or maybe all that was possible was a freeze or collapse.
Often people feel stuck in their trauma and continue to re-live it. With guidance, you to listen to the sensations of what your body wanted to do and learn to listen to what it needs now. Regaining a sense of control over the event and yourself is empowering. Once the body is heard, the pain and the symptoms of PTSD will begin to diminish and even disappear.
Getting Help For PTSD
If you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD, or hoping it will just go away, contact us today to get more information about treatment options. You can overcome PTSD, but it does not happen on it’s own. If you are in the Chicago area, our therapists at our Glen Ellyn or Jefferson Park office can help. Get the resources and support you need to answer your questions and move beyond the trauma.
None of us can go back in time and change the fact that a traumatic event happened. However, with treatment, the symptoms will not last forever. You can conquer the trauma and live a full and happy life. Time, treatment, and support will help you overcome PTSD.
“Human beings are born with the innate capacity to triumph over trauma. I believe that not only is trauma curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening and genuine transformation.” –Peter Levine, PhD (developer of Somatic Experiencing)