June 27th is PTSD Awareness Day in Canada. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health illness that occurs after someone experiences or witnesses an extremely traumatic event. The symptoms of PTSD can be severe and long-lasting and may include nightmares, reliving experiences in the mind, or anxiety and depression.
Approximately 45 percent of immigrants and refugees who have come to Canada have arrived from countries experiencing social unrest or war. These experiences may be carried with them as they acclimate to Canadian society. Although Canada presents a safer environment for many of those who choose to come here, PTSD can nevertheless prevail in adding further challenges to being in Canada.
What is PTSD?
When someone experiences something extremely traumatic — like being threatened with physical harm or witnessing violence against another person — it is common to feel scared or worried about what might happen next. These feelings are normal reactions to stressful situations; however, if these feelings last longer than expected (and significantly interfere with your life), then it may be PTSD.
PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed any event that results in psychological trauma. It was originally called "shell shock" during World War I, and it was officially recognized as a disorder in the Western world in 1980.
While PTSD often occurs after one specific traumatic incident, such as military combat or natural disasters, it can also be caused by repeated or prolonged exposure to such events. For example, people who have been exposed repeatedly to domestic violence may experience PTSD symptoms if they are unable to leave the situation.
Symptoms of PTSD are different for people
PTSD can vary greatly in severity and intensity, but it always takes some time to develop. Some people may experience mild symptoms that last for a few days or weeks after an event, while others experience severe symptoms that affect their daily lives for years. The symptoms can also vary from person to person depending on the type of trauma they experienced, their coping strategies for dealing with it and other factors like gender, age, and cultural background.
Nightmares and flashbacks are the most common symptoms of PTSD. Both nightmares and flashbacks can be very frightening and make it hard for people who have them to sleep well at night or concentrate during the day.
It is common for people who have suffered trauma to feel detached from themselves. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Emotional numbness. They may feel detached from their feelings and find it difficult to express emotion or be empathetic towards others.
- Feeling like you are not real. Trauma survivors often describe this feeling as an out-of-body experience where they cannot trust their own perceptions of reality, such as seeing themselves walking but not being sure if they are actually moving or feeling like they're watching a movie rather than living through an event.
- Feeling like you are not in control of your own actions or thoughts, especially when triggered by reminders of past traumatic experiences (e.g., flashbacks).
Symptoms of PTSD are not only psychological. PTSD may have physical ramifications as well, including:
- Heart palpitations or chest pain;
- Shortness of breath;
- Dizziness or faintness; and
- Sweating, trembling, nausea and/or vomiting.
Triggers of PTSD for Immigrants and Refugees
Triggers are different for everyone. Triggers can be reminders of a traumatic event, such as seeing someone who looks like someone from one's past or experiencing a certain smell or sound. Immigrants and refugees may have specific kinds of triggers due to their experience with war or violence in their home countries and being separated from loved ones when they came here as refugees.
Although immigrants and refugees may have come to Canada for a better life, it is important to remember that established norms and attitudes here may have a negative impact on their mental health as well. For instance, further triggers of PTSD can include being targeted because they're not the race of the majority here in Canada (as many immigrants are) or experiencing racism by other Canadians. In fact, a 2021 study found that 7.5 percent of minority immigrants experience PTSD. Comparatively, only 3.6 percent of white immigrants experience PTSD.
Treatment for PTSD
There are a few ways to address PTSD if you or a loved one is suffering:
- Medication –Medication can help improve sleep or reduce anxiety, depression and other symptoms of PTSD. Due to provincial health care plans, a lot of Canadians take for granted the added expense of medication. This may not be the most affordable option for all individuals for this reason.
- Talk therapy – A therapist can help their clients learn ways to cope with trauma and manage their feelings. The goal of talk therapy is to help individuals live a full life with less fear and more joy.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy – This type of talk therapy helps individuals recognize the thoughts that trigger stress reactions and teaches new ways of thinking that are less stressful to the body.
- Group therapy – Group therapy provides social support while also helping participants develop skills they can use on their own outside of group sessions. For example, one can learn how to deal with managing flashbacks during exposure therapy by imagining them as movie scenes rather than real events happening in front of them at the moment of recall so as not trigger such strong reactions from both mind and body simultaneously. Meditation may also help one calm down before going through any type of exposure treatment session so as not to become overwhelmed by emotions.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.