PTSD and AGING: THE ROAD CONTINUES
PTSD and aging is a topic that crossed my mind recently. I have been dealing with more symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) lately due to a stressful situation. As I struggle with various symptoms of chronic complex PTSD, I wondered if my resiliency was weakened due to my aging. I am now in my early sixties. There are tools I use to deal with stress as well as with PTSD symptoms. Why is my struggle more intense this time? Of course, there is more than one answer to that question.
In my blog post, “Does PTSD Last Forever?”, I addressed how long PTSD might last. (See: https://roadtofreedomandpeace.com/ptsd-last-forever/ ) Aging though adds complexity to the PTSD situation.
PTSD steals my present. It causes me to lose the peace of the present moment. Depression, hypervigilance, panic, anxiety, etc. cloud the clarity of the goodness of life. It can be harder to sit in gratitude and hope.
There are three articles I would like to share with you today. “Aging Too Fast, Too Young” points out that traumatic events can lead to aging faster than usual. (https://www.bu.edu/today/2016/ptsd-accelerated-aging/)
“The idea that traumatic events can have a physical effect on people has been around for a long time,” says Mark Miller, a MED associate professor of psychiatry and the studies’ senior author. “Observations suggest that traumatic stress starts a cascade of biological consequences that can produce visible signs of aging. More recent research shows how this is happening on a cellular level, and for the first time we have the methods to actually see it in a person’s DNA.”
““A lot of research is looking at the causes and risk factors of PTSD,” says Miller. “Our research is looking at the other side of the PTSD puzzle: what are the consequences for the body?”
“Traditionally, treatment for PTSD involves psychotherapy that focuses on the memory of traumatic events,” he adds. “That’s an undeniably relevant and important part of treatment. But these studies are suggesting that the clinical picture of PTSD is much bigger than a problem with somebody’s memory. The profound biological changes that accompany it affect not just the mind and memory, but the whole body.”
— Barbara Moran
The article that was most fascinating to me was “Aging Holocaust Survivors Still Suffer From PTSD”. Michele Rosenthal is the author. (https://www.anxiety.org/holocaust-survivors-trauma-ptsd-yom-hashoah) There are elderly people who have suffered with PTSD and no one may have recognized the symptoms. In this article, Howard shares his experiences with his mother who suffered trauma in WWII.
“After becoming a widow at the age of sixty-nine, Sonia had developed what doctors call “delayed-onset” PTSD, which occurs when symptoms arise more than six months after a traumatic event. While it isn’t commonly recognized, delayed-onset PTSD isn’t a rare occurrence—in fact, it makes up about 25 percent of PTSD cases. Routinely seen in the older generation, this diagnosis often appears in survivors who may be managing PTSD tendencies until a newly traumatic event (e.g. the death of a spouse) activates a trauma from earlier in one’s life.”
This article resonated with me. I highly recommend spending the time to read it in its entirety. The story conveys the humanness of dealing with the serious issue of PTSD. Also, there are educational points such as ones stated in this quote from “Aging Holocaust Survivors Still Suffer From PTSD”:
“Paths to healing are different for everybody. Sometimes, it happens through storytelling, as Howard Reich did in his book and film about Sonia’s Holocaust and PTSD experience, Prisoner of Her Past. “I just feel compelled to tell the story,” Howard says. “There’s not one screening we have of this film where one or two people don’t come up to me and say, ‘My uncle is acting like that. My grandfather is acting like that.’ And the reason that’s important is because when this happened to my mother, I was totally in the dark. The goal of this whole project was to enlighten everyone, especially doctors and medical professionals, that just because you’re old and having mental problems doesn’t mean you’re having [a] delusional disorder, or Alzheimer’s, or any form of dementia. It could be something as specific as PTSD.”
Too many times, people are misdiagnosed when they are suffering from PTSD. This can happen at any age. As a society, we need to be aware of this possibility. Quality of life is too important.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is a PTSD resource. In “Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms among Older Adults: A Review”, the authors state:
“There are a number of reasons why symptoms of PTSD can increase with age. Both chronological age (cohort effects of birth-year groupings) and developmental processes of aging impact the experience of PTSD. For instance:
Role changes and functional losses may make coping with memories of earlier trauma more challenging for the older adult. Such stressors include retirement, increased health problems, decreased sensory abilities, reduced income, loss of loved ones, decreased social support, cognitive impairment, and other stressors and causes of functional decline (1).
To manage posttraumatic stress symptoms in early and mid-life, individuals may engage in avoidance-based coping strategies (such as drinking alcohol or over-committing oneself to work) that are less available or effective as they get older.
At the same time, adaptation and resilience developed over a lifetime can provide a rich reservoir of coping resources upon which to draw.”
This article contains information, statistics, and even mentions a free online course on PTSD and aging. Although there is not a wealth of information on aging and PTSD, there is enough to get an idea of the problems.
Now what about solutions?
How do we cope? How do you cope?
Realizing aging may bring less resiliency in dealing with PTSD, what are our options?
As a person who deals with chronic complex PTSD, I realize there are no simple solutions. Accepting that I will deal with the traits of PTSD for the rest of my life is a first step. PTSD symptoms may sometimes sleep (or at least nap). Other times they may flare with intensity and even seem unremitting.
It makes sense to me that my resiliency may lessen as I age. Body parts give out – heart, joints, etc. Our bodies and our minds may need extra care.
Coping methods include the common ones. The basics, such as sleeping and eating well, are useful for all of us. Other ideas may be helpful for one person and not at all for another individual. I include ideas below. Take to heart what resonates with you. Experiment. You know what is beneficial.
Seek therapy, if needed
Life changes for us no matter what our age. It helps to be flexible.
Maybe you are in a job that requires a “sense of urgency”. You handled it well in the past; but now you realize the job is causing undue stress. Can you change jobs or even retire? How much weight do you put on your mental health compared to your physical health? Unfortunately, in our society, it can be harder to make taking care of your emotional and mental health a priority.
Are you retired? Is having extra free time not as idyllic as you had imagined? Do you need to make a flexible schedule for yourself? Would volunteering help? Did you have dreams of making a home for a pet, but thought it would not be good because you were never home? It is not too late now to get a pet. Maybe walking a dog regularly would help your PTSD symptoms to ease. Petting an animal can lower your blood pressure and stress levels. Are there meet-ups in your area? It could be a great time to explore other avenues and options. Think outside the box!
Keep talking with others. Do not isolate. Find others who can be with you … as you deal with however PTSD appears in your life at the moment. Sometimes other survivors of trauma can tolerate your distress easier than those who cannot relate.
PTSD is serious. It kills. Veteran suicide numbers highlight that fact. (See: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/problems/ptsd-suicide.asp)
Do not blame yourself for not being able to control your PTSD symptoms or for not being stronger. It is okay to reach out for help when needed. Vulnerability need not be a weakness. Seek out those you trust.
Be with other survivors of abuse and/or trauma and support them, especially during difficult periods. Giving to others can be quite healing.
Recently I met a friend for coffee. We shared our coping techniques for dealing with sleep issues. You never know when a simple comment may give you a glimpse to a different way of coping. If no new idea arises, just sharing your mutual difficulties can help.
Reduce your stress levels if possible and if needed.
Take note of what works for you. Notice when it helps. Also, be aware of when a certain strategy no longer is beneficial. PTSD and aging creates new challenges.
Be aware of medications and interactions. Talk with other survivors who may take medication. Find out the pros and cons of prescription medications, homeopathic medications, and other alternative treatments. Decide what is best for you.
A person I respect mentioned that one big lesson is to relax, no matter what is happening, to whatever degree possible. That statement resonates with me. I immediately thought of childbirth. Breathing and relaxing are highly recommended during the process of childbirth. It is difficult to maintain; and, I found it quite helpful when my daughter was being born. Sometimes during medical or dental procedures, I think to relax even though it is difficult.
Breathing and relaxing are key components to life. The practice of meditation and contemplation prepare us to use breathing and relaxing every day. I highly recommend taking quiet time … to breathe … to relax … to just be …
“Close your eyes. Breathe …. In … Out … Find your natural breathing rhythm. Just “be”. Thoughts float in and away. Feel your body touching the chair and your feet touching the floor. Breathe. As I write this, white clouds of all shapes and forms are mixed in with a light blue sky. The wind is blowing the new green leaves and branches of the trees. Beauty is around me and within me. Notice the beauty within yourself.
Just “be” ………………………. “
What is important to you at this stage in your life (whether you are old or young)? Do you value family, friendships, working, art, music, writing, hiking, empowering others, giving to those in need, traveling, spirituality, etc.?
How do you want to live your life? All of us have limitations and difficulties. How can we live with dignity and integrity no matter what life brings? Each one of us may choose to answer those questions on an individual, personal level.
As we journey on this road to freedom and peace, I recommend: