Many of us find ways to manage stress and various mental health problems well enough to go about our daily lives. Seeking treatment for issues like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related difficulties can be challenging for a number of reasons, such as finding time and resources, fear of opening up and trusting someone with our emotions, and stigma surrounding talking about mental health. However, the aftermath of trauma can limit us in many ways that, over time, we habituate to through, in a way, shrinking our lives to exclude triggers and reminders that can make us upset. For instance, you may notice you have not been to your favorite restaurant (or to a concert, or a show) in years because crowds make you nervous. Or, you have a faint feeling that you could be closer with your loved ones, but for some reason cannot achieve a deeper level of intimacy. At the root of these difficulties may be unprocessed trauma.
Healing from trauma and PTSD can have many meaningful benefits to our lives, in general, that go beyond just symptom reduction. As mental health professionals, we know all too well that coping and adapting are not necessarily the same thing as healing. Improving your quality of life, relationships and overall life satisfaction are possible through addressing your trauma through therapy. Below, we have summarized several important reasons to seek help.
- Improved, more satisfying relationships
Feeling isolated and alone is one of the hallmark symptoms of contending with past trauma. Feeling as though no one else could possibly understand is a very common experience. And these feelings of loneliness can be persistent and devastating. Indeed, an integrative review from the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services (Reich, Nemeth, & Acierno, 2019) found that people suffering from PTSD are more likely to be divorced, unemployed, and experience difficulties with parenting. However, using a theoretical foundation titled the Socio-Interpersonal Framework Model of PTSD, the review also found that psychotherapeutic intervention can improve social functioning significantly in this same population. The review concluded that consistent and purposeful PTSD treatment can be extremely beneficial to improving social functioning in all aspects of a person’s life. An additional study conducted at the residential PTSD program of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System also indicated that improved psychosocial functioning over the course of treatment was associated with improved PTSD symptoms at discharge. Through these two studies, we can see a promising reciprocal effect: treating one’s PTSD improves our relationships, and improving our relationships can in turn improve our trauma symptoms. A key piece of any PTSD treatment involves helping individuals see that they are not alone in their suffering, and that their feelings of isolation can be worked on through psychotherapy.
- Improved physical health
In addition to our social functioning, our physical functioning can also be greatly improved through PTSD treatment. More specifically, our immune system can be directly impacted from trauma in much the same way it is impacted by physical disorders such as arthritis and Multiple Sclerosis (Ayaydin et al., 2016). In children and adolescents, dysregulation in the immune system impacted by trauma mirror the immunological dysregulation linked to autoimmune disease (Seeley, 2008). Thus, there are direct links being found between our immune system and symptoms of trauma, such as feeling disconnected from others. In fact, “feeling connected” to others can be a huge benefit to our physical health. One particular study (Li, Wang, Wang, & Wang, 2017) focused on oxytocin, often called the “connection hormone,” due to it being largely produced when we feel connected to others and our community. The study found that as we feel more connected, oxytocin levels increase, having both a physical and psychological effect. This can have a wide range of benefits, such as regulating immune function, promoting healing of wounds and tissue regeneration, and inhibiting inflammation and stress-related immune disorders. We still have much to learn about the connection between brain and body, but studies such as these show that, when we begin to feel connected with one another again, this can be quite literally physically healing us from within. Thus, the benefits to be gained from PTSD treatment span even beyond the scope of mental health.
3. Sense of personal efficacy
Our sense of personal efficacy describes our belief in own our capacity to achieve our goals. In other words, do we believe we are capable? In the context of PTSD, this may present as: “Do I believe I am as capable as I did before?” One may not be able to describe this change, and thus suffer from an ambiguous sense of loss. This sense of loss can permeate all aspects of our lives, and is not an easily describable symptom of PTSD. Yet, it can be a very pervasive one, manifesting as rigid and inflexible beliefs that we cannot, for example, cope effectively with difficulties, achieve our goals, or trust our judgment. However, a study published in European Psychologist (Luszczynska, Benight & Cieslak, 2009) suggests that these feelings of personal self-efficacy can indeed improve through PTSD treatment. Reciprocally, researchers found that this increased sense of self-efficacy in turn can help us in treatment as it continues. This study, among others, show us that this sense of belief in ourselves is not a fixed trait, and is something that can indeed be worked on in therapy.
- Sense of adventure
While a “sense of adventure” may be difficult to define, the loss of joy in once pleasurable activities (i.e. anhedonia) is a common symptom of PTSD. For example, we could find ourselves having less fun on vacation, being less spontaneous, and finding it uncomfortable (even distressing) to try new things due to thoughts of losing control. The absence of joy one can experience in the aftermath of trauma is not uncommon, and can make it difficult to feel content, playful, or carefree
This was certainly the case with Radhika Sanghani, the lone unharmed survivor of a plane crash in Thailand that killed or maimed every other passenger. Sanghani speaks about these feelings eloquently, stating that while she had “managed to control my PTSD so it doesn’t affect [her] on a day-to-day basis,” she felt that these feelings still affected her deeply. In her words: “I’m a lot less daring than I used to be. The thought of losing control terrifies me so much that I’ve spent the last few years avoiding any situation where it might happen, and have let countless opportunities pass me by for fear of ending up paralyzed by my anxiety.”
These feelings are not uncommon, and Sanghani shares her personal journey toward regaining her sense of adventure: “But last year, on the fifth anniversary of the accident, I decided it was time to confront my fear. Instead of avoiding that powerless, terrifying feeling of not having control, I was going to start seeking it out.” She concludes her journey with some beautiful examples of how regaining her sense of adventure helped with her PTSD:
My time visiting the underwater world taught me to breathe slowly through any kind of crisis, while rock climbing helped me learn to trust myself and my skills. Skiing and skydiving brought me to understand that we’re in the driving seat of our lives, and fear is just a passenger. While with paragliding, I learnt the most important lesson so far: that if I manage to focus solely on the moment I’m in, and the natural wonders surrounding me, then nothing else matters – not even my fears…
You can learn more about Radhika via her webpage, https://www.radhikasanghani.com/
It is important that we think beyond “symptom reduction” when we consider the many benefits one can obtain by seeking treatment for PTSD. As discussed, successful treatment can come in many forms, and it is in this wide variety of benefits that we can begin to understand the complexities that come along with a diagnosis like PTSD. We all have different ways of coping, managing and, eventually, bettering our lives. Once we begin to see mental health treatment as a way to improve our life, and not simply “get better,” we can move toward reducing fear and stigma, and increasing our understanding of what seeking help with psychotherapy truly means.
Ayaydin, H., Abali, O., Akdeniz, N., Kok, B., Gunes, A., Yildirim, A., & Deniz, G. (2016).Immune system changes after sexual abuse in adolescents. Pediatrics International, 58, 105-112.
Li, T., Wang, P., Wang, S. & Wang. Y. (2017). Approaches mediating oxytocin regulation of the immune system. Frontiers in Immunology, 7. 693.
Luszczynska, A., Benight, C. C., & Cieslak, R. (2009). Self-efficacy and health-related outcomes of collective trauma: A systematic review. European Psychologist, 14(1), 51-62. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040.14.1.51
Reich, K., Nemeth, L., & Acierno, R. (2019). Evidence-based psychotherapy interventionsto improve psychosocial functioning in veterans with PTSD: An integrative review. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 57(10), 24-33. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3928/02793695-20190531-04