Reconsidering the Facts of Traumatic Stress
Let’s start by making one thing clear: mental health matters. We need to be mentally stable to lead a productive life, achieve our goals, create and maintain healthy relationships, and bring peace to those around us. In other words, mental health benefits both the individual and the community at large.
One common mental illness that many people suffer from is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many of us know PTSD as it pertains to those who have survived or witnessed major traumatic events such as war, combat, serious accidents, sexual violence, or severe injury. However, there are different types of PTSD or psychological trauma that can happen to anyone. According to Julian D. Ford, author of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Scientific and Professional Dimensions, “PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that affects as many as one in fourteen adults and adolescents at some time in their lives and as many as one in 100 children before they begin kindergarten.”
It is normal for people to experience stress after trauma. Having such a reaction has nothing to do with an individual’s strength or weakness. Stress responses may last for days or linger for years. However, for most people receiving proper care, reactions and symptoms of PTSD will gradually decrease over time.
A while ago, I was preparing to bake my favorite cookies. I had the dry ingredients in the bowl, and it was time to add the wet ingredients. I’d made these cookies countless times before, so I didn’t need a recipe or step-by-step instructions. As I opened the can of condensed milk, I decided not to use a spatula for some bizarre reason and instead rubbed my index finger along the edge of the can. Not realizing how sharp it was, I nicked the nerve and immediately lost sensation in my finger.
Now, you might think that’s not a big deal and wonder how this relates to PTSD. The truth is, I had to pause several times to type out these last few sentences. Each time I did, I gripped my injured finger, curled my toes, and sunk a little lower in my chair. These reactions are nothing I can control; they simply happen.
When we experience trauma, our brains sometimes hold onto that memory not necessarily as a form of punishment but to teach us a lesson. Were you driving while sleepy? Your brain warns you not to get behind the steering wheel unless you’re refreshed and caffeinated. Do you want to chop up a salad? You will see the sharp knife, and your brain will remind you of the dangers associated with sharp objects. Did you think your finger could substitute as a spatula? Don’t do it!
Most people are survivors of trauma, and they recover over time. However, some symptoms of trauma do not resolve on their own or get worse. Individuals who experience continued symptoms may develop PTSD and require advanced care. For these people, trauma memories proceed to feel like they are happening in the present: their brains activate fight-or-flight mode even when they are safe.
According to Bradley D. Grinage in a journal article for American Family Physician, “[t]he lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the United States is 8 to 9 percent, and approximately 25 to 30 percent of victims of significant trauma develop PTSD.” Here are four subcategories associated with this disorder:
Although indications of PTSD may begin immediately after a traumatic event, a diagnosis is only made when symptoms cause significant distress, interfere with one’s routine, and last for at least one month. Remember that since everybody is different and each person has unique levels of tolerance and modes of coping, symptoms can vary over time and from person to person. Here are some common symptoms as described in the article “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)” from Mayo Clinic:
In the video “Prophet Muhammad’s Approach to Mental Health,” Dr. Rania Awaad from the Yaqeen Institute tells us that even the best of creation—the prophets who had the strongest faith and conviction—felt grief during their lifetimes. Dr. Rania points out, “There are many examples where the Prophet Muhammad [Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH)] himself experienced intense sadness. One of them was a year-long episode of bereavement after the death of his wife Khadijah and his uncle Abu Talib. His grief was so intense that historians coined this period of time of his life the ‘ammul huzn,’ or the ‘year of sadness.'”
Despite the commonality of mental health ailments, we are reminded that there is always a remedy. The Prophet (PBUH) encouraged us to deal with mental health challenges by acknowledging that they exist and seeking medical advice and intervention when necessary. As Muslims, we believe that wellness is a gift from God, and we are thus encouraged to look after our health—both physical and mental. One form of treatment is seeking the guidance and advice of trusted, knowledgeable religious leaders and psychological experts.
Increasing awareness of how trauma affects mental health has resulted in greater attention to the quality and accessibility of treatment. Many treatments have a track record of success in the medical world. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. In addition to these behavioral interventions, individuals can also be prescribed medication. In some cases, a combined treatment plan of both behavioral therapy and medication is recommended.
In the end, when it comes to physical and mental health concerns, there should be no shame in reaching out to health professionals and those around us for support. Our duty as Muslims is to maintain our health and remove the stigma surrounding mental health disorders. PTSD is a major disorder that affects people of every age range and walk of life. Today, treatments are widely available and can be highly effective for those who require them.
Life is unpredictable, and mishaps or trauma can and will happen. Sometimes these incidents will pull the rug out from under us, leaving us feeling dismayed, terrified, vulnerable, and isolated. These experiences can shake us to our cores, but we must remember that there is a path forward. The fact that we feel anxious doesn’t mean we’re still in danger. Many people suffer from traumatic stress, recover over time, and move on. Others require long-term treatment and a longer road of recovery. It’s not often an easy road, but so long as you are on that road, you will reach the destination.
Asma Jarad is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and communications strategist. Her works are published across multiple forums, ranging from health and food trends to Islam in America.