How to cope with 5 of the most common symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person, but there are a few that are reported by a high number of sufferers

By Rachel Engel

Every person’s experience with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is shaped by the event that precipitated their diagnosis, the symptoms they experience and their daily life stressors, which means that each individual case of PTSD is different.

However, there are some symptoms of PTSD that are reported more frequently by those suffering, which has spurned more research into what alleviates them.

Police recruits salute during the playing of the National Anthem at the Chicago Police Department recruit graduation ceremony at Chicago’s Navy Pier Grand Ballroom March 30. Four Illinois National Guard Soldiers were among the 107 recruits that graduated, dedicating themselves to serving the community and the city of Chicago.
Police recruits salute during the playing of the National Anthem at the Chicago Police Department recruit graduation ceremony at Chicago’s Navy Pier Grand Ballroom March 30. Four Illinois National Guard Soldiers were among the 107 recruits that graduated, dedicating themselves to serving the community and the city of Chicago. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Jason Dorsey, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs)

Through our PTSD quiz we designed to help screen participants for post-traumatic stress, our data shows there are five symptoms that are more widely reported than any others:

  • Experiencing feelings of shame or guilt
  • Having less interest in participating in activities
  • Feeling detached from loved ones
  • Being more prone to angry outburst
  • Staying hyperaware of environment

For those suffering one or more of these symptoms, it can be hard to imagine a way of life where you are not focused on simply getting through the day.

While any symptoms experienced that you suspect may be part of a larger PTSD diagnosis should be discussed with your doctor, there are things you can do to get you through until you can get an appointment.

1. Dealing with feelings of shame or guilt

The emotion of shame and its association with PTSD is interesting, as shame is typically an emotion you inflict on yourself. It occurs when you see something you’ve done or experienced in a negative way, despite you having little or no control over the situation that caused the PTSD.

Sustained feelings of shame over your PTSD diagnosis can lead to stronger feelings of guilt, and even self-harm.

The best way to combat these feelings, according to research, is to indulge in self-appreciation—do something to care for yourself, whether it’s evening walks, listening to upbeat music or talking with a therapist. Anything that puts a positive focus on yourself.

2. Lack of interest in activities

It’s easy for outsiders to say, “Just go have fun,” when they are not the ones experiencing PTSD symptoms themselves. A lack of interest in activities is one of the most common symptoms experienced by those suffering from post-traumatic stress, and it can be one of the most difficult to alleviate.

If you don’t find joy in the things you once used to, transitioning to a different hobby might be effective. Choose something you never thought you’d do, and give it a try, whether it’s a cooking class, yoga or tennis. Even switching to reading a completely different genre of books may help.

In addition, eating healthy, getting in daily physical activity and practicing relaxation techniques can also help increase your interest in social interaction.

3. Feeling detached from loved ones

It’s this symptom that often leads family members to confront you about possibly having PTSD, as your withdrawal from enjoying friends and family becomes increasingly noticeable.

This withdrawal is often called emotional numbness, as you feel like you have very little emotional investment in your relationships, leading you to pull further away. This is distressing for your loved ones, as well as you, but it’s an often cited symptom of PTSD.

It’s hard to get started, but once you recognize your feelings of detachment, you are in a better place to change. Try not to shut loved ones out, and focus your energy on being present in the moment during a conversation or activity. You may need to talk to a therapist or seek other counseling options to help combat severe withdrawal.

Talking and connecting aren’t easy, even for someone not experiencing PTSD, so any actions taken on your part are a big step toward healing.

4. Prone to angry outbursts

Anger in response to trauma is a survival instinct for humans, and is another of the most widely reported symptoms by those suffering from PTSD. Anger keeps you aware and protects you from letting your guard down. Obviously, though, sustained anger and volatile outbursts will disrupt your daily life.

Changing your response to life’s stressors and every day obstacles requires intense focus, and will take time. You need to understand that a lack of control in situations does not equal danger, which will help decrease your instinct to react in anger. Research suggests there are a few things you can do to help:

  • Take a time out when you feel an angry outburst coming on
  • Write down your angry thoughts
  • Tell yourself to “think first, act later”

The change will not be automatic, as you are retraining your brain how to react in certain situations, but it can be done.

5. Staying hyperaware of your environment

Military and first responders are trained to stay aware of their environment and assess, then reassess, their situation at all times while on the job. This extreme awareness keeps you alive, literally. After a traumatic incident, however, that adherence to hyperawareness can infiltrate your entire life.

It’s exhausting to maintain a vigilant state of awareness at all times, and is one of the most debilitating symptoms of PTSD—the inability to relax.

What can you do? There are a few distraction techniques you can begin using to help take your mind off the need to constantly assess your environment. Find things that give you a sense of safety, such as a fully charged cell phone on you at all times, or having a first aid kit in the car. Even having those small things at your disposal might be enough to alleviate a bit of the pressure.

You can also begin training your mind to focus on the task at hand instead of your surroundings. Instead of worrying about the crowd size in a store, picture the items you are there to purchase, visualizing them in your mind.

This will not be an automatic change, as you are again retraining your brain how to think during certain situations, but maintaining an adherence to the fact that you are not in danger, and focusing on the task at hand can make a huge difference in how you view the outside world. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, or think you might be experiencing symptoms, talk with a medical professional about treatment options.

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