Understanding PTSD in Seniors
Many people think of PTSD as an issue only for returning veterans of war. Actually many of us suffer from PTSD from common losses and occurrences in our lives.
PTSD develops in approximately 1 in 3 people who go through serious trauma. This can include anything from the death of a loved one, military combat, car accidents, illness or injury, natural disasters, a disease diagnosis or other events that may have significant physical or psychological impact.
Many people experience negative feelings after experiencing a traumatic event. However, when these negative feelings last for a long period of time, cause someone to relive the trauma or have daily impacts, that person could be suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For seniors, it’s not uncommon for symptoms of PTSD to be a result of traumatic events that happened earlier in their lives or to occur after a major fall, a heart attack or other serious health events.
For seniors with PTSD, symptoms can include flashbacks, depression or anger, fear, self-isolation, outbursts, feeling of powerlessness, or trouble sleeping. These symptoms can be difficult to identify or mistaken for other age-related conditions.
There are treatment options for seniors experiencing PTSD. It is recommended that anyone experiencing PTSD symptoms consult their physician to establish a plan of treatment to successfully manage symptoms.
• Lifestyle changes – for some, keeping active and engaged can help manage PTSD symptoms. This can include anything from starting a physician-approved exercise regimen, volunteering, getting involved in community activities, or finding ways to increase mental stimulation.
• Medicine – there are medications that can help seniors with PTSD. For seniors that are prescribed medication, it’s important to schedule regular check-ins with a physician and to be open about the positive and negative effects of medications.
• Therapy – individual or group therapy can be a great resource for seniors with PTSD. There are multiple types of therapy, with different goals and methods for each. Cognitive Processing Therapy, Prolonged Exposure therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and Stress Inoculation are types of therapy specifically created to help with PTSD symptoms. Seniors that are interested in starting therapy should talk to their doctor about the type of program that might work for them.
• Sharing experiences – talking about the traumatic event that caused the PTSD can also bring relief and foster connections that may be beneficial for a senior’s physical and mental health. This can be a conversation with a friend or joining a support group – it’s important for people to share in an environment where they feel supported and understood. It can be difficult for someone with PTSD to talk about their experiences, but for many this may be a necessary step for managing symptoms.
Self-Care for PTSD
Overcoming your sense of helplessness is key to overcoming PTSD. Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times. One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others: volunteer your time, reach out to a friend in need, or spend time with a grandchild helping them learn a new skill. Taking positive action directly challenges the sense of helplessness that is a common symptom of PTSD.
Get Moving--When you’re suffering from PTSD, exercise can do more than release endorphins and improve your mood and outlook. By really focusing on your body and how it feels as you move, exercise can actually help your nervous system become “unstuck” and begin to move out of the immobilization stress response. Try:
Age appropriate exercise that engages both your arms and legs, such as walking, swimming or chair exercises. Instead of focusing on your thoughts, focus on how your body feels. Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the water or wind on your skin.
Spending time in nature like at a garden or lake is ideal. Anyone with PTSD can benefit from the relaxation, seclusion, and peace that come with being out in nature. Seek out local organizations that offer outdoor recreation or teambuilding opportunities.
PTSD can make you feel disconnected from others. You may be tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. But it’s important to stay connected to life and the people who care about you. You don’t have to talk about the trauma if you don’t want to, but the caring support and companionship of others is vital to your recovery. Reach out to someone you can connect with for an uninterrupted period of time, someone who will listen when you want to talk without judging, criticizing, or continually getting distracted.
Finding a Therapist for PTSD
When looking for a therapist, seek out mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. You can ask your doctor or other trauma survivors for a referral, call a local mental health clinic, psychiatric hospital, or counseling center. Beyond credentials and experience, it’s important to find a PTSD therapist who makes you feel comfortable and safe. Ask if they have worked with seniors and listen to their answers. Make sure you feel comfortable with them. While therapy may work wonders, it also takes time and trust to get the full benefit.
Mayo Clinic. “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Web. 2018.
Psychiatric Times. “PTSD in Late Life: Special Issues.” Web. 2018.
American Psychiatric Association. “What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Web. 2013
Everyday Health. “When a Health Crisis Leads to PTSD.” Web. 2012.
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