Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD, affects 6-7 million people in the United States. While occurring mostly in the adult population, and often associated with veterans, this mental health condition does not discriminate by age, career, or any other factor. Anyone who has experienced trauma or a life-threatening event can develop PTSD.
Medical professionals know much more about this anxiety disorder than they did in the past. In fact, post-traumatic stress disorder was not officially recognized by the American Psychological Association until 1980. The public is learning more, too. The stigma surrounding mental health is declining, and more people are seeking PTSD counseling and treatment.
We talked to Brenda Shook, a neuroscientist and associate professor at National University, about the role of PTSD counseling.
Symptoms of PTSD
Shook, who clarifies she’s not speaking as a clinical psychologist, explains that PTSD is a complex and complicated area and that symptoms present themselves in many different ways.
“Some people have nightmares that won’t stop, and others will completely block all of it out, but it’s still there,” she says.
Someone might experience a combination of emotional, relational, and physical symptoms. It’s important to note that many physical and mental health conditions have similar symptoms, which is why only a skilled medical professional can make a diagnosis.
Emotional effects include:
- Misplaced guilt.
- Lower-than-usual self-worth.
- Panic/intense distress.
- Lack of emotion.
- Inability to remember or speak about the trauma.
Relational indicators include:
- Feeling emotionally detached from friends and family members.
- Loss of interest in activities once found enjoyable.
- Lack of sex drive.
- Substance abuse.
- Divorce or separation.
- Domestic abuse.
Physical symptoms can manifest as:
- Chronic pain with no explanation.
- Chronic fatigue.
- Heart problems.
- Asthma or breathing issues.
- Eating disorders.
- Digestion issues.
- Severe headaches.
- Sleep issues.
In addition, many who experience this condition have re-experience symptoms, which can include flashbacks, nightmares, and frightening thoughts.
As you can see, the stress and anxiety that come with PTSD can lead to physical health issues. This explains why sometimes PTSD isn’t diagnosed, let alone considered, right away. Typically, to be diagnosed with PTSD, someone must experience their symptoms for at least one month after the traumatic event. It can take many years after a trauma, however, for someone to develop PTSD.
An Overview: PTSD Treatment and PTSD Therapy
Mental health professionals, often referred by someone’s primary care physician, can provide PTSD treatment and therapy in a variety of forms. Most commonly, these methods either fall under psychotherapy or medication.
Psychotherapy for PTSD counseling includes several approaches:
- Cognitive behavior therapy.
- Exposure therapy.
- Eye movement desensitization and processing (EDMR).
- Stress inoculation training.
- Group therapy.
Shook says that, especially if depression is involved, cognitive behavior therapy is often the preferred technique. With this type of therapy, a psychologist may show a patient how to use their support systems.
“Many people develop an exaggerated fear response and want to isolate themselves from friends and family. And that can further exacerbate their situation,” she says. “So a therapist may help a client reestablish or build relationships with their primary support groups.”
Behavior therapy takes work, though, and not everyone may be ready for that. Shook says some cases of PTSD are so severe that the individual is not able to engage in the work of therapy.
“In those cases, the psychologist can make a medical referral,” Shook explains. Beginning a new medication can often help someone get where they need to be “to re-engage with therapy.” PTSD patients are typically prescribed SSRIs — or, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors — such as fluoxetine, paroxetine, or sertraline. (Common brand names of those, in order, include Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft.)
Adding medication to a care plan illustrates that many people need a combination of PTSD treatments and care from both a mental health professional and their primary care physician.
Many people look to alternative approaches for PTSD treatment, either instead of or in addition to their other therapies. Among these alternative options are yoga, meditation, and acupuncture. Shook adds that animal companions are rising in popularity as a PTSD therapy option.
Who Can Provide PTSD Therapy or PTSD Treatment?
After experiencing PTSD symptoms, a person might first visit their family doctor. Then, they might see one of a variety of mental healthcare professionals:
- Social workers.
- Master’s level clinicians.
- Psychiatric nurses.
- Veterans’ counselors
Psychologists and psychiatrists often have private practices, but mental health professionals are available in many places, including hospitals, community clinics, college campuses, family health centers, residential rehabilitation centers, and government agencies. In a time of crisis, someone might receive PTSD treatment at an emergency room or shelter.
How Do You Get Into PTSD Counseling?
To work as a behavioral mental health counselor, you’ll at last need a bachelor’s degree. A major in psychology, human services, or criminal justice could lead to entry-level work within an agency as a caseworker. Higher-level positions, such as a licensed professional counselor, that allow you to work more closely with clients or even start your own practice will require additional education and training.
Most states, in fact, require a graduate degree in health care, and licensure or certification to practice as a clinical counselor. The Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology program at National University, for instance, is designed to meet the California Board of Behavioral Health standards for a licensed professional clinical counselor. Since PTSD is prevalent among veterans, former military servicemembers are often drawn to enter PTSD counseling roles. In these cases, an online degree from a military-friendly college, such as National University, could be an especially appealing option.
You can explore the many options for psychology education at National University by visiting our program page.