Managing PTSD as a Student

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June is PTSD Awareness Month, and we’re hoping to encourage open and honest discussions that promote mental health and wellness—this month and beyond.

Did you know that up to 17 percent of college students suffer from PTSD? That’s higher than the general population.

What is PTSD?

The American Psychological Association defines PTSD as an anxiety problem that develops after experiencing extremely traumatic events. The symptoms can manifest in similar ways to other mental health disorders, but there are some specific signs that help psychologists identify those suffering specifically with PTSD.

Here’s what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) outlines as the four main PTSD symptoms:

1. Re-experiencing symptoms, for example:

  • Recurring and intrusive memories of the trauma

  • Flashbacks where the person feels or acts as if the trauma is recurring

2. Avoidance symptoms, for example:

  • Avoiding reminders of the traumatic experience, including people, situations, places, or objects

  • Repressing or ignoring emotions or thoughts related to the event

3. Arousal and reactivity symptoms, for example:

  • Outbursts of anger with little provocation

  • Reckless or self-destructive behavior

4. Cognition or mood symptoms, for example:

  • Inability to remember important details of the event

  • Exaggerated negative beliefs, such as thinking no one can be trusted

An understanding of PTSD dates as far back as far as 50 B.C., when Hippocrates wrote a poem about the experiences of a soldier returning home from war. And while PTSD is commonly known as something associated with soldiers, it affects more than just those with battlefield experience. For example, those who have experienced sexual assault are twice as likely to suffer from PTSD and those who have experienced abuse and neglect as children may also have symptoms associated with PTSD, such as intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares and difficulty concentrating.

Can PTSD affect learning?

A study by the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University-Newark shows that PTSD can influence learning. Exposure to traumatic events may lead to difficulty in paying attention and maintaining consciousness, which are crucial to success in education. Experts have noted that those suffering from trauma, in general, may have lower learning outcomes and higher rates of learning difficulties.

Here are the main learning difficulties students suffering from PTSD may experience:

Memory

  • Remembering new terms, facts and past details can be harder for those who are dealing with trauma. Even important logistical information, such as appointments and schedules, can sometimes be harder to keep track of as PTSD is known to affect memory.

Attention

  • Disorganized thinking and problems with attention can make it difficult to concentrate on information, especially when it is new and unfamiliar. PTSD can lead to problems with concentration and therefore difficulty with reading comprehension and absorption of learning material.

Problem-solving

  • Other symptoms of PTSD, such as avoidance, can make it challenging to solve problems. Executive functions may also be impacted, which are the mental skills needed to plan, manage and execute everyday actions.

How can I manage PTSD as a student?

Going to college with PTSD can be a struggle, but many find ways to manage it and even learn new coping strategies along the way. To manage PTSD as a student, it’s important to first recognize the specific signs and symptoms you’re experiencing, such as an inability to concentrate or amplified feelings of aggression.

A study published by the National Library of Medicine outlines several techniques that can help students to manage their PTSD. Here are just a few:

Relaxation Training

  • Relaxation training involves teaching students deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and positive imagery to help them manage their PTSD symptoms. These skills are transferable to the classroom, home and other locations where PTSD symptoms may be triggered.

Cognitive Restructuring

  • Cognitive restructuring focuses on ways in which the experience of traumatic events may have affected the student’s cognition of the world around them. Feeling threatened or frightened can especially lead to difficulty in functioning at school. Cognitive restructuring allows students to practice awareness of their automatic thoughts in various situations (like those that provoke anxiety) and then begin replacing these negative thoughts with more helpful and accurate ones.

Trauma Narrative 

  • Developing a narrative of the traumatic experience can enable those suffering from PTSD to process what they’ve been through. By recounting events in writing or even with pictures, the trauma memory becomes more manageable. A trauma narrative can help students to express what happened and work through some of the thoughts and feelings associated with it.

Although PTSD treatments are known to be effective, most people who have PTSD don't get the help they need. As one former-Marine and graduate from the U.C. Berkeley put it, “If you are having a hard time, seek professional help and don’t be stubborn.” A mental health professional can help you try out different coping mechanisms and find the right methods that work for you.

If you’re a friend or family member wanting to help someone with PTSD, here are some things you can do to offer support. The Department of Veterans Affairs also offers helpful resources and ways to raise PTSD Awareness during #PTSDawarenessmonth and beyond.

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