The truth about PTSD
90% of people with PTSD (or PTSI) haven’t been to war, they’re survivors of abuse and assault, car accidents, natural disasters and other forms of trauma.
PTSD is a serious mental health issue that affects the everyday lives of people who suffer from it. However, it isn’t talked about much, and when it is it’s often assumed that only military personnel or veterans suffer from PTSD, but they’re not the only ones.
We aren’t certain exactly why PTSD happens but some theories say it could be the brain's way of trying to keep us better prepared next time something happens. After going through something traumatic stress reactions are normal, and the brain can heal fully after a few weeks or months.
PTSD is when these feelings don’t go away and it can last for months or even years, this is when it becomes a problem as we don’t need to keep thinking about the event constantly as it can have a serious impact on our lives.
What is it like to have PTSD?
Flashbacks are what most people think of when PTSD is brought up, these can come out of nowhere or be triggered by a sound or something else that reminds the person of the event/s. People who live with PTSD can also experience a number of other symptoms:
- Insomnia or nightmares (often but not always relating to the traumatic event/s).
- Trouble concentrating.
- Avoiding thoughts, feelings, locations, and people associated with the traumatic event/s (isolation).
- Flashbacks, or the sensation that the event is happening again.
- Inability to enjoy old hobbies.
- Low mood.
People with PTSD aren’t dangerous. Aggression and psychosis are not symptoms of this disorder, and although movies may display people suffering from PTSD as “crazy” - this is not a diagnosis but rather a stigmatising and damaging label.
Are flashbacks hallucinations?
The short answer is no. Flashbacks are “intrusive memories”, meaning they really happened - they’re not made up, whereas hallucinations are perceiving something as real that never happened, like a sound or visual. However, flashbacks aren’t always like the ones seen in movies, people may not always experience a visual but may feel everything they felt when it happened - the fear, panic and stress. They might also experience it with their other senses, hearing or feeling things that happened in the past.
How to help someone
Remember, everyone's experience with PTSD is different. Some people with PTSD say they feel that nobody understands them - but the more time they spend alone the less they feel like others will get what they’re going through.
Getting into this cycle of isolation can be particularly damaging - with any mental disorder it's important to know that nobody has to go through it alone, so if you feel that someone you know may be suffering from PTSD, it can be really helpful to gently reach out to them - let them know you’re there to talk if they need to.
How to seek help
Anyone can call any of New Zealand's free helplines - visit www.pmgt.org.nz/directory/#mental-health-directory for a list of mental health-specific ones. The people there can give advice on what to do and what your next step can be, these organisations are here to support people, it's okay to ask for help.
And remember there are others who understand the feelings PTSD can bring. Talking to people with similar experiences can really help you feel seen and understood. It shouldn’t be substituted for professional help but can be a great resource alongside it as it can help you work through any feelings such as shame, guilt, and fear.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
Many people experience brief episodes of sadness or disconnection from their normal selves. When the seasons change, these mood swings can start and stop. When the days go shorter in the fall and winter (also known as "winter blues"), people may feel "down," but when the days get longer in the spring, they may feel better.
10% of New Zealanders suffer from seasonal affective disorder. This condition is four times more common in women than in men but is found in children.
SAD symptoms typically appear in the late fall or early winter and disappear in the spring and summer; this is referred to as winter-pattern SAD or winter depression. Summer depression, also known as summer-pattern SAD or summer depression, affects a small number of people during the spring and summer months.
Signs and symptoms of SAD
SAD is not considered a separate disorder but is a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year. Therefore, the signs and symptoms of SAD include those associated with major depression, and some specific symptoms that differ for winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD. Not every person with SAD will experience all of the symptoms listed below.
Symptoms of major depression may include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
- Having problems with sleep
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having low energy
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
For winter-pattern SAD, additional specific symptoms may include:
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
Specific symptoms for summer-pattern SAD may include:
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
- Restlessness and agitation
- Episodes of violent behavior
If you believe you may be suffering from SAD, speak with your doctor or a mental health specialist about your concerns. They may ask you to complete specific questionnaires to determine if your symptoms are consistent with SAD.
What causes SAD
Research indicates that people with SAD may have reduced activity of the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) serotonin, which helps regulate mood. Research also suggests that sunlight controls the levels of molecules that help maintain normal serotonin levels, but in people with SAD, this regulation does not function properly, resulting in decreased serotonin levels in the winter.
Other findings suggest that people with SAD produce an abnormally high level of melatonin, a hormone essential for maintaining a normal sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin overproduction can cause sleepiness.
Both serotonin and melatonin aid in the maintenance of the body's daily rhythm, which is linked to the seasonal night-day cycle. Changes in serotonin and melatonin levels disrupt normal daily rhythms in people with SAD. As a result, they can no longer adjust to seasonal changes in day length, resulting in changes in sleep, mood, and behaviour.
Vitamin D deficiency may exacerbate these issues because vitamin D is thought to promote serotonin activity. In addition to vitamin D obtained through diet, the body generates vitamin D when exposed to sunlight on the skin. People with SAD may have lower vitamin D levels in the winter due to less daylight, which may further impair serotonin activity.
Negative thoughts and feelings about the winter and its associated limitations and stresses are common among people with SAD (as well as others). Although it is unclear whether these are "causes" or "effects" of the mood disorder, they can be a useful treatment focus.
How is SAD treated
Treatments are available for people with SAD. They fall into four main categories that may be used alone or in combination:
- Light therapy
- Antidepressant medications
- Vitamin D
Discuss with your doctor which treatment, or combination of treatments, is best for you. You can also:
Phone a helpline:
- Lifeline 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
- Suicide Crisis helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
- Healthline 0800 611 116
- Samaritans – 0800 726 666
- Depression helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 (to talk to a trained counsellor about how you are feeling or to ask any questions).