How can you cope with PTSD symptoms? We look at five possible strategies.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is best known as the condition that affects people who have served in the military, and who are therefore most likely to have witnessed a disturbing event on the battlefield.
Yet developing PTSD can be a natural response to any number of distressing experiences, such as sexual abuse, physical assault, accidents, or any type of violence.
Symptoms of PTSD include a heightened state of anxiety — especially accompanied by persistent flashbacks of the traumatic event — sleeplessness, moodiness, and avoidance of places or social situations that might trigger flashbacks.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 7.7 million adults in the United States live with PTSD, though women are twice as likely as men to develop this condition.
PTSD can last for years, and its symptoms can severely impact overall quality of life. That being the case, it can sometimes be tempting to apply negative coping strategies to deal with symptoms of PTSD.
Negative coping strategies may seem helpful on the spur of the moment, yet they can easily turn self-destructive in the long-term. These can include resorting to alcohol or recreational drugs to numb your feelings, decrease stress, or quieten your thoughts.
Alcohol and other substances may take the edge off to begin with but can cause addiction if used as a substitute for a proper treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been recognized as a "safe and effective intervention" for this disorder.
So what are some things you can do, in addition to CBT and any other treatments recommended by your doctor, in order to keep your PTSD symptoms under control? Here are a few approaches you may want to consider.
1. Mindfulness meditation
Increasingly, meditation and mindfulness-based relaxation techniques have been shown to help manage a range of disorders.
Mindfulness meditation-based treatments have been shown to reduce depressive moods and boost self-perception.
A review of mindfulness-based treatments for PTSD points to a few therapies that have been found effective in reducing avoidance and self-blame in people diagnosed with the disorder. These are:
- mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which is an intensive 8-week program focused on the practice of mindfulness meditation that aims to train people to focus their attention on their breath and learn to avoid getting carried away by intrusive thoughts
- mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), defined as "an adaptation of MBSR," has a very similar structure but is designed to target depressive moods and negative thoughts, more specifically
- mindfulness-based exposure therapy, which includes a 16-week non-trauma-focused program that incorporates MBCT techniques and favors safe and controlled exposure to avoided stimuli, focusing on self-compassion training
- meditation-relaxation, such as loving-kindness meditation, was also deemed effective in increasing self-compassion and reducing depressive symptoms related to PTSD
- mantrum repetition practice, which refers to "the silent repeating of a sacred word or phrase," appears to be effective in targeting anger, hyperarousal, or the state of being constantly on guard, and symptoms of anxiety and depression
2. Regain focus through physical activity
Many people who have been diagnosed with PTSD say that finding an enjoyable physical activity that they can perform regularly has helped them to reduce their levels of stress and cope with their symptoms.
Rebecca Thorne, who was diagnosed with PTSD following childhood trauma, explains how running has helped her to cope with the symptoms that were impacting her life.
"I am a runner – and I suffer from [PTSD]," she says. "One of the many things I think about while I'm running, and also when I'm not, is the relationship between the two."
"I embrace running in all weathers [...], always with a considerable amount of ascent. As I fight my way up the climbs, I often imagine that the hill is my illness and I am going to slowly and steadily conquer it. Yet it never feels like suffering and, once at the top of the hill, I can reach out and touch the sky."
Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge in the United Kingdom found that surfing can be an effective coping strategy for war veterans diagnosed with PTSD.
According to the team, this sport helps veterans to attain a focused mind state known as "flow," in which they are so absorbed in the activity they are performing that all other thoughts and emotions are pushed aside.
Dr. Nick Caddick, who was involved with the study, compares this with the effects of mindfulness meditation, just that it is more active. He calls it "a moving form of mindfulness."
Medical News Today also reported on a study that suggested that Tai chi — a form of martial arts — can help war veterans to manage their PTSD symptoms.
Another study covered by MNT earlier this year found that orange essential oil may be effective in reducing symptoms of chronic stress and anxiety associated with PTSD. However, this study was only conducted in mice, and these effects are yet to be replicated in a human cohort.
Some suggest that aromatherapy can be helpful in managing chronic stress.
Still, some individuals diagnosed with PTSD have said that aromatherapy can be a helpful relaxation strategy and is effective at lowering stress levels.
Sezin Koehler — who has been managing her own PTSD symptoms for many years — writes, "Lavender, sage, peppermint, or any other relaxing oil massaged on the spot between your eyebrows and your pulse points is marvelously calming."
Author and former Thames Valley Police officer David Kinchin, who was diagnosed with PTSD in the 1990s, also advocates for the soothing effect of aromatherapy in one of his books.
"Aromatherapy can form part of a healing regime as well as being a preventive therapy in its own right. It gives pleasure through the sense of touch (massage), the sense of smell (aromatic oils), the sense of sight (pleasant surroundings) [...] By so doing, it helps to create favorable conditions in body and mind for healing to take place quite naturally."
David Kinchin, 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Invisible Injury'
4. Art therapy
A type of PTSD therapy that has been picking up steam over the past few years is art therapy.
Led by specialists trained to work with people who have experienced traumatic situations, this type of therapy aims to help individuals externalize their emotions and learn to cope with distressing memories through art, such as painting or sculpture.
One case study shows how art therapy can help individuals diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury to overcome their symptoms and begin to leave their distressing experiences behind by using art projects strategically.
Study author Melissa Walker, who works as an art therapist, explained why and how art therapy can be effective in treating PTSD in a dedicated TED talk.
Walker encourages the people who she works with to create masks exploring the impact of the traumatic experiences on their lives and personalities.
"Someone who has experienced trauma has a block that keeps them from verbalizing what they've been through," she says in an interview. "There is a shutdown in the [convolution of] Broca — the part of the brain responsible for speech and language."
"The mask gives them a way to explain themselves. The concrete image of the mask unleashes words. It reintegrates the left and right hemispheres. Now they can discuss their feelings with their social worker or psychiatrist."
5. Pets for PTSD
Another approach reportedly effective in helping people to cope with the disruptive symptoms of PTSD is adopting a pet that is especially trained to recognize and prevent — or interrupt — the onset of such symptoms.
A number of studies have shown that adopting a trained animal has a positive impact, at least in the short-term, by helping people to manage PTSD-related depression and anxiety, as well as other symptoms such as nightmares.
Research published last year indicated that spending as little as 1 week with a specially trained dog improved PTSD symptoms by 82 percent.
Richard Steinberg, a veteran diagnosed with PTSD, says that his dog "can sense when [he's] having a nightmare, night sweats," and she becomes restless, doing her best to catch his attention, "trying to remove [him] from the situation."
"Putting my hands on her calms me down, and it calms her down," he adds. "She senses the chemical changes in my body."