Real Life

What Post Traumatic Stress Disorder feels like

Twelve per cent of Australians are affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Like many others, Alison Hallworth used to associate Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD) with soldiers returning from war. But as the 41-year-old discovered, the condition can cast its net much further.

For Hallworth, PTSD struck in the months following the traumatic birth of her eldest daughter.

Hallworth’s birth story is a catalogue of disaster. After 40 hours her induction still wasn’t working. Her epidural failed. Then, as her daughter’s heart rate plummeted, she was rushed into theatre for an emergency C-section.

After the birth, unresponsive care providers inadvertently left Hallworth tied to her bed with the catheter tube, unable to reach her baby.

“It was all incredibly distressing. I felt as if I had utterly failed at giving birth,” Hallworth recalls.

In the months following the birth, Hallworth found herself feeling anxious, she constantly worried that something was going to happen to her daughter.

“It was way beyond new mother worries; I was waking several times a night to check on her breathing. I was also obsessed with being prepared for every eventuality and reading up on everything to make sure I was doing things right,” she remembers.

It was nine months before Hallworth was diagnosed with PTSD. In that time her body had been operating in fight or flight mode, leaving her completely exhausted.

Psychologist Annie Gurton says that the “fight or flight” response Hallworth describes is a key element of PTSD.

“If we have experienced something in the past that our brain thinks is dangerous or hostile, we defend ourselves by becoming hyper-vigilant in case we encounter that same situation again, and enable us to escape from it,” she explains.

Gurton says that the difficulty with this is that the brain can’t differentiate between what we are seeing, hearing and feeling from imagination, dreams and memories.

“So our brains become confused, and can easily go into an over-defensive mode which means that it sees danger where there is none, and prepares us to escape when that is not appropriate,” she notes.

In practice, this means that something as simple as a loud like a noise or a smell can trigger the unconscious brain into a cascade of memories, extreme reactions and feelings of fear.

“Very quickly we can experience a variety of physical and emotional responses such as sweating, breathlessness, panic, a loud and rapidly beating heart, heart palpitations, flashbacks and a deep feeling of dread or fear that makes us think that we are going to die,” says Gurton.

Gurton says that at its core PTSD is a mechanism designed to protect us.

“We are, at our core, just simple creatures trying to survive in a world that has developed faster than our minds. PTSD attacks are examples of our mind tripping up itself in an effort to cope with everything that’s going on for it,” she explains.

Rachel Ingram was 45 when she was medically discharged from the Australian Defence Force because of PTSD.

Ingram served as the army’s first female photographer and served alongside a full male battalion in Afghanistan.

“PTSD is a daily struggle. Sometimes hourly. And it can be crippling,” she says.

“There are days when I have sat on a step for hours just trying to deal with my emotions and find the strength to get out of the front door.”

Ingram continues: “Working in war-torn devastation and witnessing the death of comrades is something that is hard to explain to others – it’s ingrained in your every thought, feeling, and nerve. While you may be removed by time and distance from the trauma physically, in your mind, you’re right there, every day. It never leaves you – never goes away.”

Ingram was referred to Walking Wounded, an organisation that specialises in the physical and psychological rehabilitation of returned Australian soldiers.

“Soldiers are proud people – we are not very good at reaching out for help – Walking Wounded understands that and how we think,” she explains.

Having given Ingram the support she needed to find purpose in her life again, she is regaining the confidence and ability she once had during her long career. She is now actively involved in fundraising for Walking Wounded.

“This organisation saves lives. It gives people like me a purpose,” she says.

PTSD doesn’t always raise its head immediately after trauma. Emily Rooney and her family fled from the Canberra bush fires in 2003, but Emily didn’t start experiencing PTSD until 2012.

“I had started writing a book about the experience so was doing a lot of research and going back over newspaper articles that I never saw at the time. I started to experience nightmares, flashbacks, hyper vigilance, hyper sensitivity (I could smell smoke a mile off) and heightened anxiety,” she explains.

Like many other PTSD sufferers Rooney felt distressed and alone.

“It felt like it would never end and there was nowhere to escape it. My mind would go into disordered thinking about other potentially life threatening situations. I imagined being in car or plane crashes, getting struck by lightning, tidal waves, hold ups in banks,” she says.

Rooney notes that it was particularly distressing because so much time had passed since the bushfires.

“I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly re-living it all the time and thinking all these negative and dramatic things,” she says.

With the help of a clinical psychologist Rooney has been able to recover from PTSD and is feeling confident about the future. “I’m in a much better place now,” she says.

According to Beyond Blue as many as 2,881,632 Australians could be affected by PTSD. But as Alison Hallworth discovered, there is help available.

“GP’s and mental health professionals are well equipped to provide the right support for those living with PTSD,” she says.

“It would not have sorted itself out. Processing trauma is complex and having the right professional help was life changing.”

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