As seen in Nature of Things doc PTSD: Beyond Trauma, it’s becoming clear the trauma that causes PTSD rewires the human brain, in some cases leaving a permanent imprint on a victim’s sensory and hormonal systems. In the past decade, neuroimaging studies have proven that PTSD is real, measurable and can afflict almost anybody subjected to trauma.

Research is underway worldwide to find new ways to tackle trauma’s deadly hangover.

Complicated to treat, PTSD symptoms vary from person to person and there is no magic bullet or miracle pill to control its effects.

To find out what PTSD victims and their families can do now, we talked to Dr. Ruth Lanius, professor of Psychiatry at Western University and the director of the PTSD research unit.

Her recommendations for patients:

There is hope. “The first thing I tell patients is that PTSD is common and that they can heal from this,” says Lanius.

Get exercise.  Many PTSD victims find exercise to be therapeutic  —  especially when it connects you to the present. Lanius suggests climbing as an excellent choice. “You need to be aware of your body and all of your limbs and that’s important.” And bonus point: exercise has been proven to help with stress.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: These inner city violence survivors in Chicago use glass blowing to connect themselves to the present.

Become aware of your triggers. Be on the lookout for potential triggers and learn how to manage them. Increase your awareness to the first signs of anger, flashback or anxiety so that you can re-orient yourself back to the present before they overwhelm you.

Refrain from excess drinking and drugs. People processing trauma have a tendency to self-medicate, but can complicate matters by developing an addiction, says Lanuis. Some patients use marijuana to cope with symptoms, but there’s not enough research yet to determine if it helps directly or just masks the symptoms. Psychedelics such as MDMA and ketamine are also being tested for potential benefits, and you can read more about those trials here.  (eventual link to story on this).

Engage in activities that make you feel good about yourself. People suffering from PTSD are often full of self-loathing and feel undeserving of positive experiences. Rebuilding a sense of self is an important part of the recovery process. Engaging in meditation, doing volunteer work that feels meaningful — anything that will rebuild your self-worth.

Process harmful memories with the support of a therapist. There are a number of different kinds of therapy that people suffering from PTSD have found effective in helping them 'digest' memories of traumatic events. Lanius recommends prolonged exposure therapy, and underscores that this kind of processing  is best done with a professional. Their support will allow patients undergoing prolonged exposure therapy  to re-live the traumatic experience in a safe place, gradually reducing the fearful and painful qualities of the memory. As Lanius works with her patients to process their traumatic memories, she tells them that “these feelings are what make them compassionate human beings.”  New and possibly more effective ways of delivering exposure therapy are on the way soon as doctors experiment with virtual reality.

Become mindful. Mindfulness training can be important in dealing with stress symptoms indirectly. It’s a way to become centred on the present and become aware of your body and the sensations around you. Learning this skill will help mitigate triggers. But Lanius warms that the therapy should be tailored to each patient: too much for long periods of time can be overwhelming for PTSD patients.

COMING SOON: CBC Journalist Curt Petrovich shares his story with PTSD. Watch Lost on Arrival on Firsthand.

For family members:

Educate yourself about PTSD. Understand the problem and its symptoms. PTSD will affect the entire family.

Let them know they’re not alone. One of the worst side effects of PTSD is that sufferers perceive themselves as outcasts,. This is exacerbated by very real social isolation when people don't call or email. Offer support.

Get therapy for yourself.  Spouses and children can exhibit some of the same symptoms as their loved ones. And PTSD can rip families apart: Studies show that PTSD sufferers are twice as likely to get divorced. Take care of yourself too, especially if you're the primary caregiver.

Negotiate time outs. Lanius says that taking a short break can be crucial to helping the family cope when anger, stress and irritability become a problem. Have a plan in place beforehand and don’t be afraid to use it.


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