In this blog post I’d like to address the question that often comes up after I identify that someone has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Can PTSD be cured? The answer is yes. End of post.
No, just kidding! Just kidding about it being the end of the post. Not kidding about if PTSD can be cured, it can, depending on your definition of cure. It’s actually not that simple as yes or no, but first, let’s talk about what PTSD is.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a reaction to a traumatic event. A traumatic event can be any event in which your life or safety was threatened (or even if you perceived your life as threatened), in which you witnessed someone else’s life being threatened or ended, or in which you were violated in some way. Most of the time when someone experiences a trauma, they experience distress for a few weeks to a month, and then they notice a natural recovery - their life gradually gets back to normal and the frightening event becomes just a part of their story. When this reaction turns into PTSD, they experience a combination of the following symptoms in each of the following categories:
Intrusive thoughts or memories
Feeling very upset or experiencing physical sensations when you are confronted with the memory
Feeling pain or discomfort in your body when confronted with a reminder of the trauma
Trying to not do, see, or experience anything related to the trauma or that has a remote chance of reminding you of it
Not going certain places or seeing people who remind you of what happened
Not doing what you used to enjoy
Being distant from loved ones
Avoiding crowded places
Not talking about what happened
Trying very hard not to think about what happened
Feeling on guard or on edge all the time
Lashing out at loved ones
Not being able to relax
Being easily startled
Inability to sleep
This is not a comprehensive list, of course, and I caution you against self-diagnosis or diagnosis of loved ones if you are not a mental health professional, but this is basically it -- PTSD is a set of symptoms that persist for longer than a month after a traumatic event. So, what PTSD treatment, including Prolonged Exposure therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, does is reduce these symptoms to the point where they no longer interfere with your life. They do not take away the memory, but they change your relationship to it to make it more like a regular memory.
How are Trauma Memories Different?
Trauma memories are different from regular memories. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Inside Out,” (and if you haven’t, I highly recommend it) remember how they depict the memories inside the girl’s head — they are like a big bubble with the scene inside of it. I envision trauma memories much like this, except in the trauma memory bubble is a lot other stuff, like all the emotions, physical sensations, and thoughts that occurred at the time of the memory. Trauma memories are different from other memories in that all of this stuff gets trapped with the memory.
For instance, imagine you were rear-ended sitting in road construction traffic on Highway 94 just outside of Minneapolis by a car going 60 miles per hour. Now, whenever you find yourself stopped in traffic on 94, you might feel your blood pressure rising, your back muscles start to tighten up, your anxiety increases, and you start to think you’re about to get hit all over again.
In a trauma memory, the walls of that bubble are a lot thicker than ordinary bubbles, so all of these thoughts, feelings, and sensations remain trapped with the trauma memory. This is a problem because your mind cannot connect the trauma memory to the truth that you are safe now, that the thousands of times that you have been stopped in traffic on highway 94 you have not gotten rear-ended, and that you survived the accident.
Trauma Therapy for PTSD
Our goal in trauma therapy is to help thin the walls of that memory-bubble. We use various strategies (like Prolonged Exposure and EMDR) to help you truly know in your heart that you are safe now — even though you could get in another accident, you start to feel “safe enough”, to connect to the fact that you have driven that road so many times without incident, that you do not need to be afraid. Your body is able to recognize that you are no longer in danger, and the memory becomes just a memory, not something that you continue to experience.
So, while trauma therapy will not make you forget the trauma, it will make the trauma just another piece of the story of your life, instead of it being the story of your life. That is as close as we get to a cure for PTSD, and for the many people I have seen recover from PTSD through therapy, it is enough.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist who offers counseling for adults with PTSD, trauma symptoms, and chronic pain in St. Paul, Minnesota. She also works with individuals via remote, online counseling throughout the state of Minnesota. You can schedule an appointment and learn more about Erin’s Twin Cities therapy practice at erinbdlicsw.com, or reach Erin by phone at 651-998-8991.