Anxiety disorder not just for war veterans, says psychologist

While Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is commonly associated with war and combat situations, the disorder can surface for all kinds of people who have experienced all kinds of trauma, says Kim Busch, a psychologist at the Calgary Counselling Centre.

Characterized by symptoms ranging from feeling scared to having flashbacks of the trauma, PTSD is defined by the Canadian Mental Health Association as “an anxiety disorder characterized by reliving a psychologically traumatic situation, long after any physical danger involved has passed, through flashbacks and nightmares.”

A garment designed by Ruby Johnson. Johnson is a fashion designer in Calgary who lives with PTSD.

Photo by Jasmine HanBusch explains that PTSD can result from common traumatic experiences, such as being in an emotionally abusive relationship.

“The trauma could have been abuse, rape, an accident at work, a life-threatening situation, a car accident, it doesn’t really matter,” Busch says.

Significant emotional or physical responses are then tied to that event. The disorder is characterized by reacting to triggers that cause the sufferer to re-experience the emotional or physical response.

Busch says: “Later on, it could be days could be months, weeks, and years for some people, they’re in a situation and something triggers them. They then relive it just like if they were there physically and emotionally again.”

A Calgary Woman’s Experience With PTSD

Ruby Johnson, a Calgary fashion designer who lives with PTSD, says her disorder is connected to a former relationship that was emotionally abusive.

“It’s like having a monster on your back and you never know when it’s going to rear its ugly head,” she says.

Johnson suffered from flashbacks and nightmares, which disrupted her life on a daily basis.

“I was terrified to go to sleep at night because of the nightmares.”

She was eventually admitted to the psychiatric ward at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, where she received medication that helped stop the flashbacks.

In addition to medication, Johnson discovered that working with her hands helped her cope with symptoms. She remembers her daughter bringing knitting needles and yarn to her hospital room.

“It stopped the nasty negatives from going around in [my] head and so I have found tremendous healing in working with my hands.”

Video produced by Jasmine Han

Not All Traumas Cause PTSD

Busch says it’s important to realize that many people who do experience trauma do not necessarily suffer from PTSD as everyone’s brain process is different.

“One person could be raped, and never have PTSD — they could process that situation and get through it without it,” Busch says.

For others, a traumatic event can trigger reoccurring emotional attacks.

“They might sweat, they might cry, they might feel scared, it’s different for every person.”

A Lack of Research and Understanding

Dr. Scott Patten, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Calgary explains how current research on PTSD has been studied in America, but not as extensively in Canada.

“There is an estimated six per cent of women with PTSD and an estimated three per cent of men with PTSD [in America],” he says.

“If you look at certain occupational groups like soldiers, it would probably be about three times as high.”

Patten adds there is also a lack of public understanding about the disorder, as some people mistakenly view it as a moral failing rather than a mental health problem.

“There are tendencies to trivialize these problems: you’re not tough enough, you’re weak, get over it. You don’t tell someone to get over their heart attack or cancer, but people can still think that way when it comes to mental health issues.”

Patten says societal reactions can be especially negative.

“It’s quite easy to develop empathy about a child with cancer, but people suffering from mental health issues sometimes elicit a negative reaction.”

Patten says he believes this might be why PTSD has not received sufficient research funding.

jhan@cjournal.ca