June is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month, and while the condition is commonly associated with the horrors of military violence, it “may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act…or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.”*
“Approximately one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD, but this only accounts for the people who decide to seek help,” said Laquisha Moore, M.Ed., LPCC/LMHCA, sexual assault therapist for The Center for Women and Families in Southern Indiana. “It is my professional opinion that the number of unreported cases is much higher.”
Interestingly, PTSD can also be diagnosed in people who did not directly experience an upsetting event, such as a friend or family member who learns about their loved one’s trauma, or people who are routinely exposed to traumatic information or details of horrific events, such as first responders or social workers.
“PTSD is a complex diagnosis and extends to those exposed directly or indirectly to a traumatic event, threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation,” said Traci Simmons, MDiv, MAMFT, sexual assault outreach coordinator at The Center for Women and Families. “It can also include racial trauma, sexual orientation discrimination, gender bias, and other societal concerns.”
A diagnosis of PTSD is the body’s response to a significant amount of stress, distress, or impairment that affects an individual’s capacity to work or function in other important areas in their daily life.
“Interpersonal violence and sexual violence have a significant impact on a person, their sense of self, and their sense of safety in the world,” said Natalie Patton, LCSW, emergency shelter therapist for The Center for Women and Families. “Many symptoms of PTSD overlap with other mental health conditions, so it is important to take into account any history of trauma that someone has experienced when seeking support with mental health.”
In this blog post, Laquisha, Natalie, and Traci answer common questions about PTSD as it relates to The Center’s survivors.
How could I recognize potential PTSD in my friends, family members, or co-workers?
Laquisha: Recognizing PTSD symptoms can be difficult because sometimes the symptoms can be related to other mental or emotional problems. Some of the physical and emotional signs of PTSD include being easily startled or feeling intense fear even when there is no threat present; always being on guard for danger; trouble sleeping; flashbacks, aggressive behavior, and overwhelming guilt or shame related to their trauma.
Natalie: Symptoms of PTSD can manifest differently in different people, but there are general themes of which to be aware, such as avoidance of things associated with the traumatic event and recurrent intrusive symptoms, such as nightmares. A family member or friend might notice that their loved one has persistent negative beliefs about themselves, others, and/or the world, a loss of interest in people and things, withdrawal or detachment, increased irritability or anger outbursts, self-destructive behavior, and difficulty concentrating.
Traci: A few things to notice are slight or significant behavioral changes, social interactions, visceral reactions to social ills, avoidance, mood adjustments, etc. However, even with these symptoms present, PSTD can exist with other diagnoses and lie dormant until an incident occurs that activates these symptoms. In a lot of ways, it can be a sleeping giant.
What are some things that cause distress for, or “trigger,” people with PTSD?
Natalie: The things that activate a trauma response can be very specific to the circumstances surrounding the traumatic event. Some things could be considered in a general sense, such as loud, sudden noises that might trigger someone who is experiencing an exaggerated startle response. Identifying triggers can be an important step in coping with trauma responses so that coping strategies for those triggers can be created or developed.
Traci: Considering we are going into year three of COVID-19, continued uncertainty with daily activities can cause symptoms to arise. Due to PTSD’s unpredictability, it’s important for those who have loved ones diagnosed with PTSD to heighten their awareness of that person’s particular stressors and symptoms and offer support in reducing them whenever possible.
Laquisha: People who have PTSD can be distressed by internal triggers (related to thoughts, feelings, and emotions), external triggers (related to people, places, and things), and sensory triggers (related to sight, smell, sound, touch, taste/textures of food) that remind them of how they have been traumatized.
How do you personally treat/manage PTSD in clients at The Center?
Traci: Depending on the need expressed by the client, we engage a variety of therapeutic modalities to support survivors, including cognitive behavioral therapy, expressive therapy, solution-focused therapy, and others. I collaborate with clients on emotional expression, re-writing the narrative of the traumatic event, creating safe/brave coping strategies, safety planning to support mental stability, and reconstructing personal belief systems and values.
Laquisha: I seek to build a rapport of trust and understand the ways in which my clients are experiencing PTSD. I create a treatment plan that involves reducing psychological and emotional disturbances and address negative beliefs they’ve built up in their minds about themselves related to their trauma. I explore the ways their PTSD symptoms impact their daily functioning and assist clients in managing that by helping them learn and implement effective coping skills. I engage clients in processing past trauma on a deeper level that explores internal, external, and sensory triggers. I also assist clients in learning to challenge, reframe, and interrupt disturbing and negative thoughts. I encourage clients to believe that in times of distress that they can handle whatever comes their way and help clients come to new conclusions about themselves and their experiences to reduce shame and guilt.
Natalie: I approach everyone I meet with the understanding that they have experienced trauma. It’s my goal to provide a safe space for clients to process and explore what they need, which often involves some education about the significant impact of trauma. Clients come to me with so many strengths and so often need some support in remembering how resilient they are. Ultimately, no matter what process we use to get there, the therapists at The Center seek to provide safety and connection.
If someone suspects that they or someone they know might be experiencing PTSD as a result of domestic or sexual violence, what should they do?
Natalie: Reach out. Call our free, 24-hour hotline at 1-844-237-2331. Call your insurance provider to find mental health providers who accept your insurance. Look for a therapist who has experience working with people who’ve experienced interpersonal violence and sexual violence, and advocate for yourself and your needs.
Laquisha: They should lovingly let them know that help does exist and encourage them to seek counseling.
Traci: It is important not to self-diagnose but rather lean into professional support to assess the symptoms. One of the best ways for a friend or family member to provide support is by taking notes about their loved one’s behavioral changes that are concerning. Often, we are unaware of our behavioral changes until they’re brought to our attention.
If someone seeks help for PTSD at The Center, what can they expect?
Laquisha: If someone seeks help at The Center for Woman and Families in Southern Indiana, they can expect me to give a genuine effort to explore, identify, and understand their issues. Clients should be prepared to be honest about what they are going through and have a spirit of willingness to do the mental and emotional work that helps them overcome. The experience and treatment course can be very intense and often emotional. However, it will be rewarding and healing as clients will see improvements in how they handle life as they work on reducing the distressing symptoms related to PTSD.
Traci: We approach their concerns through a trauma-informed lens. We take our time and go at our clients’ pace, because they are the subject matter experts of themselves. In a patient manner, we take our time to explain and interpret what a survivor is feeling and experiencing in a safe, comfortable, and non-judgmental environment. There is no pressure to talk about the traumatic event; we understand the emotional work it requires to share their experience with someone else.
Natalie: In my role, I support survivors who are staying at The Center’s emergency shelter, but we also have a team of therapists who work with any person in our community who has experienced sexual violence. There is often a waiting list for those therapeutic services, but I would encourage anyone who might need that additional support to reach out by calling the crisis line.
What changes have you seen in survivors after providing them support for PTSD?
Natalie: The success belongs to the client for the hard work they’ve done, but it’s important for people to know that positive change can happen! I’ve worked with clients who felt stuck in fear, anger, and grief who found that, with support, they were able to find ways to cope with the symptoms while working through the complicated emotions. There is value in understanding what you’re experiencing and knowing you aren’t alone, and every step taken toward healing is an important one. When someone can reestablish a sense of safety for themselves, change happens.
Laquisha: Many clients I’ve worked with have had amazing outcomes, and the credit is all theirs as I was just the co-pilot assisting them in accomplishing treatment goals. Many tell me they feel better about 4-6 weeks into treatment, although the length of treatment time varies from person to person. I have watched clients go from being terrified of life, people, and social situations to living in state of contentment and reduced anxiety. I have assisted clients in building positive beliefs about themselves and their ability to be resilient in all situations.
About the Team
Natalie Patton is a licensed clinical social worker and has worked for The Center for Women and Families as a therapist since 2018. Natalie provides therapeutic services for individuals at The Center’s emergency shelter and has led initiatives focusing on suicide prevention and the intersection of domestic violence, mental health, and substance use. In addition to her work at The Center, Natalie maintains a private practice.
A therapist for more than five years, Laquisha Moore began working for The Center in March 2022 as the sexual assault therapist for the Southern Indiana campus. She sees individuals for therapy and has created a six-month group dynamic sexual trauma program called Levitate 4 Life to assist survivors in healing from sexual trauma. Laquisha is also the Treatment Director at Option to Success, a residential treatment facility for teenage girls in Louisville, and operates her own counseling business, Levitate.
Traci Simmons has worked as a sexual assault outreach coordinator at The Center for five years. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management and minor in Business from the University of Kentucky, and a Master of Arts in Divinity and Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
*Information from https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd.