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What Are the Stages of PTSD?

A female who is terrified and her hands are on her face as she tells to her therapist the details of her trauma

Increasing conversations about mental health means you might be familiar with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Perhaps you’ve heard of it as hardship veterans face after war or as a diagnosis for people who survive sexual assault. While you may know that PTSD is a mental health disorder, are you aware of the stages of PTSD? 

PTSD can affect people in many ways. Understanding the stages of PTSD can help explain the disorder as a whole. 

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition that can develop after exposure to a traumatic event. A traumatic event is a death or near-death experience, or prolonged or repeated exposure to something considered traumatic, like abuse. Exposure to that experience can happen directly or indirectly, which means a person can experience the trauma themselves or learn about it happening to someone else.

A diagnosis of PTSD requires specific criteria to be met, including:

  • Intrusive thoughts, which include flashbacks, unwanted memories, or repeated images relating to the traumatic event
  • Avoidance, meaning a person avoids stimuli that reminds them of the traumatic event
  • Alterations in mood, such as persistent feelings of sadness, shame, or guilt, an inability to feel happy or enjoy things they used to or feeling detached from the world around them
  • Reactivity and arousal, such as having angry outbursts, engaging in self-injurious behavior, trouble sleeping or focusing, or becoming startled easily

A person must experience a particular set of these symptoms for at least one month and have difficulty functioning in their daily life to meet the criteria for PTSD. People who have some of these symptoms for less than a month after the traumatic event may qualify for a diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder or another trauma-related condition. They may receive a PTSD diagnosis at a later time if their symptoms don’t improve.

What Causes PTSD?

The exact cause of PTSD is unknown. Some people who experience a traumatic event do not develop PTSD afterward. Some people develop PTSD directly following the traumatic event. Others don’t experience the onset of PTSD until months or years after the traumatic event. 

While what makes some people develop PTSD after traumatic events is unknown, some factors are more likely to lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. For example, people who lack social support, those with depression or anxiety, or people with parents with mental health disorders are more likely to experience PTSD.

What Are the Effects of PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can make it almost impossible for a person to complete daily activities. The emotional states associated with PTSD can be debilitating for the person experiencing PTSD and those who love them. 

Symptoms of PTSD, as described above, include:

  • Memories of the traumatic event
  • Dreams about the traumatic event
  • Flashbacks (dissociative reactions) where it feels like the traumatic event is recurring
  • Intense distress as a reaction to things that symbolize or resemble part of the event
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Negative thoughts about yourself or other people or the world
  • Lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling as though you are sometimes a different person
  • Having an out-of-body experience 
  • Not remembering how you got somewhere
  • Avoiding distressing memories, thoughts, and feelings associated with the traumatic event
  • Avoiding outside reminders that bring up distressing memories, thoughts, and feelings associated with the traumatic event (people, places, activities, objects, situations, or conversations)
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restlessness)
  • Irritable behavior and angry outbursts without provocation (physical or verbal aggression)
  • Hypervigilance (increased alertness to their surroundings)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Exaggerated startle response

It is essential to realize that symptoms can fluctuate as people learn to cope or deal with PTSD. These fluctuations can be confusing and overwhelming. This unpredictability is why understanding the various stages of PTSD can help navigate the healing journey. 

A therapist showing something on her tablet to a distress female with her hand on her face sitting in a couch

Understanding the Stages of PTSD

PTSD typically develops in stages following exposure to a traumatic event. While not everyone exposed to a traumatic event (even the same traumatic event) will develop PTSD, those who do are likely to follow the same path. 

Emergency Stage

The emergency stage of PTSD, also called the “impact stage,” generally occurs right after a trauma exposure. During this stage, people might be in shock about what happened. They also might experience guilt, fear, shame, nervousness, or even emotional numbness.

Depending on the severity of the traumatic event, this stage might last several hours or as long as weeks. For example, someone who has witnessed a drive-by shooting might report feeling hypervigilant and highly anxious for several days after the event. 

Rescue Stage

The rescue stage of PTSD involves the survivor beginning to recognize the impact of what happened to them. This stage usually comes with feelings of confusion, helplessness, anger, or emotional numbness. 

This stage also can involve denial of the gravity of the traumatic event. A person might be so distressed about what happened to them that they refuse to accept or think about it. This denial can happen consciously or subconsciously. 

Being in a state of shock is common to survivors of traumatic events during this stage. The brain and body might have a hard time understanding or processing the trauma.

More often than not, the rescue stage of PTSD is when the survivor begins to accept that something traumatic happened to them. During this stage, it can be helpful for the survivor to reach out to others who have been in a similar situation. An example of this would be someone who has experienced a sexual assault going to group therapy for survivors of sexual assault.

Short-Term Recovery Stage

The short-term recovery stage of PTSD involves returning to some sense of normalcy. In this stage, people might experience physical recovery from the traumatic event. For example, someone who had emergency surgery after a car accident goes home from the hospital.

Basic needs related to safety are fulfilled during this stage, allowing a survivor to focus on deeper issues related to the traumatic event. Critical to the short-term recovery stage is a sense of social support for the survivor. Having loved ones involved to assist the survivor when feelings become overwhelming is key to recovery. 

Long-Term Recovery Stage

The long-term recovery stage involves a continued effort by the survivor to address the lifelong effects of PTSD. This stage could include a whole range of feelings through the years as they re-learn how to live in the wake of the traumatic event. 

Survivors in this stage can benefit from seeing a mental health professional to help process the traumatic event, reduce negative symptoms, and gain a better quality of life. Learning various positive coping mechanisms can help survivors deal with the ongoing effects of trauma and integrate these into their life. 

Therapy can occur at any of these stages of PTSD. A survivor might need different things during therapy at different stages—mental health professionals who work with trauma know and embrace this need for ongoing healing.

Treating PTSD

PTSD is best treated by mental health professionals, like those explicitly trained in treating trauma at Integrative Life Center. PTSD treatment involves reducing negative symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, negative thoughts, fear of going certain places or doing certain things that remind the survivor of the trauma, or other difficulties that cause impairment to an individual’s daily life.

Methods of treatment for PTSD include Cognitive Behavioral  Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR). Each of these approaches to therapy helps the survivor process their traumatic event so that it does not feel like the event is still happening when they encounter triggers.  

How Integrative Life Center Can Help

The specially-trained professionals at Integrative Life Center are available to assist individuals experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. With a wide range of options for treatment methods, ILC is ready to guide survivors in learning how to thrive despite any trauma they’ve experienced. At ILC, each individual is unique and therapeutic interventions reflect that. 

No person experiencing PTSD is the same, but all people experiencing PTSD deserve supportive therapy to feel better. Contact ILC today to speak with a specialist.

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