How to Cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a serious and complex mental illness that can be life threatening. Learn about the symptoms, causes, and treatments.

Woman burying and holding head to her knees in great distress

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a mental and behavioural illness with complex psychological and physiological symptoms caused by highly distressing and traumatic events.

According to WHO’s World Mental Health Survey, prevalence varies widely, from 1.7% in South Korea to 9.2% in Canada. Among studies of PTSD in Malaysia, a 2016 study of adolescents in Malaysia indicated a prevalence of PTSD as high as 11.7%.

PTSD is a public health concern in an increasing number of countries. Especially now with the COVID-19 global pandemic itself potentially being traumatic to those who are severely affected.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is an anxiety and trauma-related disorder that is uniquely defined by its set of symptoms, the traumatising events or causes, and heightened risk of suicidal behaviour or harm to self and others as a result.

Its symptoms include changes in cognition or mood, as well as changes in arousal and reactivity. Symptoms must persist for at least one month, and not attributed to the physiological effects of a substance. Prolonged and repeated traumatisation can lead to complex PTSD, a distinct and more severe case of PTSD.

Symptoms and Causes of PTSD

Man holds head and closing eyes experiencing trauma in front of woman
PTSD or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a severe mental illness with psychological, behavioural, and physical symptoms.

Generally, PTSD symptoms involve reliving the traumatising event through sudden flashbacks and nightmares. Flashbacks can be triggered by any number of things and are often specific to the person with the condition. Reliving in the form of nightmares often also means that those with this condition often also have debilitating insomnia. Many patients also express sudden behavioural, cognitive, and mood changes, making concentration and normal life extremely difficult.

In addition, PTSD correlates with other medical conditions such as fibromyalgia, depression, and other physical ailments. The onset of symptoms does not necessarily happen immediately after the trauma, making the assessment of early symptoms especially important.

Treatment for PTSD

Treatment for PTSD primarily includes psychotherapy. Sometimes doctors may prescribe medication to assist with conditions caused such as depression and insomnia.

A review of psychotherapy interventions strongly recommends Prolonged Exposure (PE), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), and Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT).

Meanwhile, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also includes Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) in their recommendation.

Other forms of therapies such as group and art therapy, as well as bodywork – given the physiological manifestation of PTSD – have also shown some positive results. 

How Eastern Modalities Can Help with PTSD

Dried Chinese ginseng rootlets on reflective black surface.
TCM herbs such as Panax ginseng (Chinese ginseng) can be part of a comprehensive and carefully prescribed regimen to treat mild PTSD.

In conjunction with comprehensive psychotherapy by licensed professionals, you can look at PTSD from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Interestingly, the TCM understanding of and explanation for the condition are not too radically different from Western and modern medicine.

TCM Physician Brandon Yew explains that PTSD is classified as Dian Kuang, translated as “depression and mania” which points to the depressive as well as agitated and sometimes aggressive behaviour displayed by those suffering from the disorder. The pathology for Dian Kuang is excessive fire, phlegm, blood stasis and qi (vital life energy) stagnation affecting mainly the heart and liver.

TCM can help manage the symptoms through TCM herbal medication, acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping and tuina.

Herbal treatment 

Among TCM herbs that can help include Poria, Danshen root, Spina date seed, Polygala root, Silktree albizzia bark, and Chinese dates. Ginseng whiskers (dried Panax ginseng rootlets) can also help return vital energy and relieve stress.

“Only TCM physicians can prepare herbal formulations to address the unique body constitution of every individual patient. I cannot over-emphasise that it is necessary to first consult the TCM physician. This is to get a proper assessment instead of trying to self-medicate,” reminds Physician Yew.

Acupuncture  

A collage of bai hui, yin tang, and shen men acupoints to help relieve PTSD symptoms.
Symptoms of PTSD such as anxious feeling and trouble sleeping can be alleviated by stimulating specific acupoints.

Additionally, acupuncture can also help a person with mild PTSD. The acupoints that TCM physicians usually utilise in this treatment include Baihui (DU20, 百會), Yintang (EX-HN3, 印堂), Shenmen (HT7, 神門). TCM physicians may also use others that assist with clearing up the heart and liver pathology identified earlier.

Physician Yew adds, “It is only when the condition is largely under control with much more manageable symptoms, that TCM, Ayurveda or any other forms of alternative medicine can safely come into the picture to complement Western medicine in providing a more rounded treatment.” 

PTSD as a mental illness with specific criteria for diagnosis and treatment has only been around since the 1970’s. Fortunately, treatments options have come a long way. Many patients find relief and emerge out of the condition with post-traumatic growth instead. Talk to a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

References

  1. National Health Service, United Kingdom (NHS). 2018. Overview – Post-traumatic stress disorder. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  2. National Health Service, United Kingdom (NHS). 2018. Complex PTSD – Post-traumatic stress disorder. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  3. Cambridge University Press. 2018. The Global Epidemiology of Trauma Exposure and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Chapter 1 of Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Global Perspectives from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  4. Psychological Medicine. 2017. Posttraumatic stress disorder in the World Mental Health Surveys. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  5. Malaysian Family Medicine. 2017. Incidence and demographical characteristics of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder due to motor vehicle accidents. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  6. Malaysian Journal of Public Health Medicine. 2016. Prevalence and Perceived Severity of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Flood Victims in Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  7. Cancer. 2017. Course and predictors of post-traumatic stress disorder in a cohort of psychologically distressed patients with cancer: A 4-year follow-up study. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  8. Traumatology. 2016. Lifetime Trauma Exposure, Gender, and DSM–5 PTSD Symptoms Among Adolescents in Malaysia. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  9. Molecular Psychiatry. 2021. Prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder after infectious disease pandemics in the twenty-first century, including COVID-19: a meta-analysis and systematic review. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  10. Mind.org. 2020. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  11. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 2018. Treating PTSD: A Review of Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Interventions. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 
  12. Journal of Psychology and Clinical Psychiatry. 2018. The prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among landslide victims. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. 

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