Today is National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Day. Our Client Success Manager, Kate Beck, and Associate, Alex Robertson, had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Jessica Hamblen to ask about PTSD, symptoms associated with PTSD, treatment options, and advice for employers to better support employees experiencing PTSD. Dr. Hamblen is a clinical psychologist, the Deputy for Education at the National Center for PTSD, and an associate professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. Our team appreciates both Dr. Hamblen and Peggy Willoughby, the Director of Communications at the Department of Veteran Affairs, for taking time to answer our questions and help our audience better understand and support people with PTSD.
We opened up the interview asking, “what is PTSD for those who don’t know?”
“PTSD is a condition that can happen after you've been exposed to a traumatic event. It is different from other psychological disorders because PTSD requires something traumatic to have happened. In fact, most people have experienced trauma in their lifetime upwards of 70% worldwide and even higher in some locations. While most people go through a trauma, they don't typically develop PTSD. They may have some symptoms right after for example: thinking about it a lot or trouble sleeping. These symptoms tend to improve over a couple of days or week. In people that have PTSD there is a failure of recovery. It's expected that you would have symptoms after this traumatic event but over time those symptoms should go away. If those symptoms last longer than a month, it could be PTSD” said Dr. Hamblen.
Dr. Hamblen explains that to have PTSD you must have symptoms from each of four main areas as follows.
- Reexperiencing symptoms: thinking about the trauma, having nightmares, being triggered (that is, you are going about your regular day and then something happens to remind you of your trauma).
- Avoidance: avoiding certain people, places, or conversations that would remind you of the traumatic event.
- Negative thoughts and feelings: feeling numb, sad, not trusting others, not being interested in activities that used to be enjoyable
- Hyperarousal: startling easily, being irritable, being on edge and worrying about your safety any potential threats.
PTSD is the combination of having trauma + a certain amount of time passing + experiencing symptoms in all four of those categories.
How does PTSD impact someone’s life daily?
“PTSD affects each person different. With all mental health disorders, the symptoms have to cause significant interference and distress. Interference can occur different areas like one’s social life or family relationships, or with work. For example, a person with PTSD may feel uncomfortable being out in public or going to a restaurant which makes it hard on a couple. Some may struggle with parenting – like if the PTSD gets in the way of going to your kid’s school event or baseball game. PTSD can also interfere with work. People with PTSD may feel nervous interacting with their colleagues or uncomfortable being in the physical location where their work takes place. Interference can also be the result of poor coping. Someone with PTSD may turn to alcohol. While drinking alcohol is not a symptom of PTSD, some people may try to manage their symptoms with drinking. Unfortunately, you can see the symptoms of PTSD playing out and having a negative effect in the all of the domains of functioning” said Dr. Hamblen.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms surrounding a traumatic or life threatening event, please share this free PTSD screening provided by the Department of Veteran Affairs. The screening tool looks to identify if the person is experiencing the four main types of symptoms (re-experiencing, avoidance, negative thoughts and feelings, or hypervigilance). Three or more of these symptoms would indicate that person may be experiencing PTSD and that they could benefit from having a formal assessment by a provider.
What effective treatment options are available for PTSD?
Dr. Hamblen explained that psychotherapy or “talking” is the most effective method to treat PTSD. Research today shows trauma-focused psychotherapies are the most effective treatment. This type of therapy focuses on your memories from the traumatic event. Your therapist will help you understand what those memories mean to you. Most Talk Therapies last 3 to 4 months. There are other talk therapies that do not focus on trauma that are also effective. Please refer to the VA’s website to view all types of PTSD treatments.
While there is a multitude of treatment options for PTSD no single treatment is right for everyone. Dr. Hamblen explained “the VA’s website offers a PTSD Treatment Decision Aid. The I the PTSD Decision aid you will find a description of the most effective treatments, videos from providers explaining each treatment, helpful charts comparing each type, and summaries users can print and share with their doctor. This tool helps people determine which type of treatment is best for them.” Dr. Hamblen said some people want a support group, but she encourages people to do this in addition to an effective treatment. “The good news is that today we have many effective treatment options” said Dr. Hamblen.
What resources are out there for Veterans with PTSD?
The Aboutface website offers videos of Veterans with PTSD sharing their experiences, describing treatment options, and discussing the myths and questions surrounding PTSD and treatment. One major takeaway from Dr. Hamblen’s interview is how important it is to promote positive outcomes of PTSD treatment. “There's nothing like hearing a veteran who said I felt like I was going to be like this forever - I didn't see any future. Then I received PTSD treatment and now I feel better” said Dr. Hamblen.
She mentioned two great mobile applications for people with PTSD to use when they feel an increase in symptoms. The PTSD Coach App helps people identify what specific PTSD symptoms they are having and recommends tools to help them in real time. The Mindfulness Coach App is another great tool to help people prepare themselves before going into or leaving a situation. This app helps people take a timeout and feel more centered.
How should someone talk to their employer about their PTSD?
Dr. Hamblen explained that PTSD can have a negative impact on work. She suggests treatment as the best option. However, if someone is unable to function and their PTSD is negatively impacting their job performance she suggested seeing if their employer has a reasonable accommodation process. In some cases, accommodations can be made to help people be more successful. People might also directly approach their supervisor, whether or not you choose to disclose your PTSD, to suggest strategies that might help. A strategy might be asking if you can take a 5-10 minute break if you start to feel overwhelmed. Another strategy might be asking if you can sit in a certain place during a meeting where your back is to the wall and you can easily exit. However, she keeps coming back to that fact that these are short term solutions and that treatment can be a life long solution.