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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Barsky

PTSD in Bystanders Is a Real Thing—What to Know

When you hear the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” you may automatically imagine a certain type of person. Almost anyone, however, can develop PTSD. Any sort of traumatic event can leave a long-lasting mark on you–even if you did not experience the event directly.

Developing PTSD as a bystander to a traumatic event is more common than you may think. Nearly 10% of all diagnosed cases can be attributed to a bystander. To learn more about this type of PTSD, keep reading.

First—what is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is hopefully a phrase you have heard more of in the past couple of years. Although it has technically been a diagnosable condition since the mid-1980s, PTSD has become more mainstream in the past several years.

PTSD is more than just shell shock, it is the body’s response to experiencing or witnessing something traumatic. Essentially, it is the way you react after something incredibly traumatic happens. There is no set definition of what may cause PTSD. It can be a car crash or an act of mass violence; there is no right or wrong answer.

Recognizing the signs of PTSD

Now that you know exactly what PTSD is, you may be wondering what the disorder looks like. Each case of PTSD is different and there is no one “requirement” to be diagnosed.

Here are a few of the most easily identifiable symptoms of PTSD:

  • Experiencing intense and vivid flashbacks of the traumatic event

  • Recurring nightmares

  • Disassociating or feeling detached

  • Increased levels of depression and anxiety

  • Startling easily

Developing PTSD as a bystander

Previously, you may have thought that you could only have PTSD if a traumatic event happened to you directly. Not necessarily. Your reaction to an event is completely justified and valid. Bystanders are susceptible to developing PTSD just as easily as the person to whom the event happens directly.

For example, if you witnessed a particularly gruesome car accident, it would be completely natural to feel wary about driving. Just because you were not in the car accident yourself does not mean you are immune to developing PTSD. Regardless of how your body and mind may react to an event happening, your feelings are valid.

How you can cope

The good news is that whether you are a bystander or not, there are plenty of ways you can begin to cope with your PTSD. This is not a comprehensive list. If none of the following appeal to you, I encourage you to continue searching for coping mechanisms that work for you and your lifestyle.

  • Work on self-soothing: PTSD can really spike your anxiety levels. One of the best ways to calm yourself in these situations is by practicing self-soothing. This can be any combination of actions that feel calming to you, like brushing your hair or laying under a weighted blanket.

  • Find a creative outlet: Expressing creativity is so good for the mind. Not only is it a wonderful way to work through your feelings, it but also feels very gratifying to create something with your own two hands. Whether you enjoy painting or writing or knitting, find something creative you enjoy doing.

  • Lean on your support system: Your friends, family, and other loved ones want to see you thrive. If you are having a particularly bad day, week, or even month, let them know. Allow your support system to support you in your times of need.

If you are interested in expanding your support network, look into finding a counselor near you. There are several forms of therapy specifically developed to treat those with PTSD, and I encourage you to explore these avenues. Get in touch with me today if you are interested in learning more.

For more information on trauma therapy, check out the link.


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