Not all wounds are visible

Post-traumatic stress can strike anyone after a life-threatening event, but it is what you do next that can make a difference.

The following is an excerpt from “Not All Wounds Are Visible” published in the Spring 2015 edition of Excelsior College Magazine.

“I just thought I was losing my mind.”

FC_ExcelsiorSpr15That’s how Jenny described her symptoms. Simply putting one foot in front of the other seemed like an insurmountable task. Yet to many, her life may have seemed from outward appearances to be enviable. After all, she was a doctor’s wife who worked side-by-side with her husband of 28 years.

But what most didn’t know, including for a time Jenny herself, was that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the triggers for this condition is exposure to a traumatic, life-threatening event, and while it is often associated with military servicemembers and veterans, there are non-combat situations that can contribute to developing this disorder.

Take Jenny, for example. Her name may not be real, but her situation is. A pseudonym for an actual upstate New York individual, Jenny bravely agreed to share her story with students in Excelsior’s course, PBH 346 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Gathering Storm, which launched in March 2014.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety ailment, according to course designer Craig Owens, a licensed clinical social worker. An incident that threatens an individual’s life or the life of those who the person cares about can be the catalyst to an onslaught of debilitating symptoms. “There’s any number of ways a person can develop it, because there’s so many things that threaten someone’s life,” Owens adds.

PTSD is diagnosed if two key conditions are met, according to Anna Zendell, faculty program director in the School of Health Sciences, who also helped design the course. “One is that a person needs to be exposed to or witness a traumatic event, and that event needs to be something that there’s a perception, a very strong perception, of impending death, injury, or harm to oneself or to others. The other [condition] is basically [the] feelings that go along with it — the feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and inability to cope or to deal with the event and the outcome,” she explains. The genesis of the course came from a class that Zendell was teaching on chronic illness. Here 25 percent of students chose PTSD as a chronic condition to research further, giving her an indication of just how prevalent and pervasive the condition can be.

In the United States alone, more than half of all Americans will be exposed to at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. These situations can range from events ripped from the front-page news such as military battles and large-scale natural disasters to more individualized events such as car or industrial accidents, or sexual assaults. Children and teens aren’t immune to PTSD either; statistics show that three to five percent of girls and one to six percent of boys exposed to a traumatic event may develop the disorder. In Jenny’s case, it was her husband’s constant threat of committing suicide that led to the classic PTSD symptoms of re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoidance of things that reminded her of the incident, and living in a state of hyper arousal.

“In 2000, my husband of 28 years tried to commit suicide for the first time, and he continued to try different methods until 2002 when he completed suicide,” explains Jenny. “And it is a very traumatic thing, not only for me, [but also for] my family, my children; it is just a very stressful time. I didn’t really know how to deal with it.”

Read the entire piece and other great stories at Excelsior College Magazine.

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