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Penny Rayas, MFT
Penny Rayas, MFT, Therapist
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Experience:  I have 20 years experience in the mental health field
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In your opinion, can PTSD develop from purely emotional trauma

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In your opinion, can PTSD develop from purely emotional trauma? Let me explain a bit about my situation: I grew up in a family of six. My father has quite a few mental disorders, and routinely abuses prescription drugs. My mother deeply cares about our family, but seems more concerned about keeping things on an even keel than actually confronting problems. For instance, she'd rather hide painkillers and other such medications than encourage my father to actively pursue treatment. I have no doubt that my father is a good man, but his many issues have pervaded the lives of me and my siblings. He is prone to fly off into a rage at any given time if he is in a bad mood. Things can vary from calmly accusing me or a sibling of lying, not being mature, or not listening, to screaming and physical force. He isn't a huge proponent of corporal punishment, but in the past, he has forcefully grabbed me, slapped me, and once punched a wall so hard he got a fracture in his hand after screaming at my brother. He also is very willing to be physically cruel to the cat, doing things such as throwing shoes at him, throwing him, and hitting him for biting someone. After doing these things, he often asks for affection, such as a hug, and tells us that he loves us. He can be extremely affectionate when he's not angry too, but for some reason, it can make me feel uncomfortable. He doesn't have much of a concept of boundaries. When I was little, he would sometimes sleep in bed with me instead of my mom. He also paid me as much as sixty dollars to sing for a video camera, and sometimes simply made me do it. Slight reminders of sex often lead to him talking at length about the topic, after which he feels hurt if I say I feel uncomfortable discussing that with him. I'm not sure he knows the sexual boundaries he's supposed to have with children. Apart from talking about sex very often, he's been skinning dipping with my brothers, and has made comments about how my brothers look in their underwear. I don't think he means anything by it, but it makes me extremely uncomfortable.
Aside from my family, I was bullied and excluded in elementary and middle school. While I was unaware of how dysfunctional my family was until recently, I did consciously know how bad the situations at school made me feel. I was repeatedly treated badly by supposed 'friends', and afterwards, simply didn't have any friends to speak of. There was a bit of a sexual theme to some of the bullying, but I was never physically assaulted. The exclusion was the primary factor of the experience, yet I feel it has affected my life in severe ways.
I feel as though I exhibit many symptoms of PTSD. I feel my heart racing when I hear footsteps and I'm in the shower, thinking I'm about to get yelled at for taking too long. I startle very easily, sometimes at things as simple as being approached by someone too quickly. I don't experience flashbacks like they are in the movies, but I can vividly remember some of my worst experiences from school, and experience those feelings along with the memories. I've struggled with depression, self-harm, and social anxiety, along with codependency and attachment problems. Problem is, I don't feel like I have any trauma that would have caused the disorder, even though I have many symptoms that other trauma victims have. My father never threatened my life, and the bullying certainly didn't, so I don't think I'd meet the criterion for a PTSD-level trauma. Is it possible to get symptoms of it from the events I have described? I feel like I shouldn't be struggling with it to the degree that I am, and I'm afraid that anyone I talk to about it will agree that I should just move on and be thankful that things aren't worse.
Hello there and thanks for asking JA. I think that PTSD can can be the result of being bullied at school and also the repeated emotional abuse or neglect that results from growing up in a disfunctional family. I work with children in the school system and I have noticed that being bullied at school can result to anxiety and PTSD. Repeated emotional abuse can result in the same trauma as having your life theatened once. The old diagnosis for PTSD was given to Vietnam Vets that trauma spelialist now see that people with prolonged trauma can have the same symptoms. So yes in my opinion long term stress can lead to PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are generally grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyperarousal).

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time
  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event

Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships

Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Hearing or seeing things that aren't there

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can come and go. You may have more post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms when things are stressful in general, or when you run into reminders of what you went through. You may hear a car backfire and relive combat experiences, for instance. Or you may see a report on the news about a rape and feel overcome by memories of your own assault. So I think you meet the criteria for the disorder according to the DSM IV-TR. Talk to your therapist CBT can be an affective treatment for both PTSD and social anxiety.

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