Fergal Keane health: ‘PTSD is a silent agony’ – BBC reporter on how he ‘eased’ symptoms

PTSD: Common symptoms to look out for explained by expert

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First diagnosed with the condition in 2008, Keane had already reported on numerous modern wars and civil conflicts around the globe, from Belfast to the genocide in Rwanda. But the emotional and physical toll that the reporting had on him lasted for several years after. One his decision to step down from his post in Africa, Keane was praised by colleagues and BBC bosses about his honesty concerning the condition, something he explored further in the Horizons documentary.

Speaking about his motivation for making the 2021 documentary Keane said: “I know that PTSD is a silent agony for so many people. It should not be that way.

“I’m making this film because I passionately believe that we need to be talking about what PTSD is like, where it comes from and how we can deal with it.”

In more recent times, with the war emerging in Ukraine, Keane has spoken about his condition once again, writing that if he had stayed in Kyiv with the war that he knew would emerge, it would have put his “mental health in grave danger”.

On his own cause of PTSD, Keane continued to say: “War repeated the nervous stress, and the powerful compulsion to prove I could survive, that I had experienced as a child growing up in a home fractured by the effects of my dad’s alcoholism. In war zones I could prove I was no longer a scared child. I had a voice.”

As the name suggests, PTSD develops in most people if they have experienced shocking, scary or dangerous events. Although it is natural to feel afraid after a traumatic situation, for those with PTSD, the feelings of terror and fear occur even when they are not in danger.

Not all individuals with PTSD will have experienced a traumatic event, but even the sudden loss of a loved one is enough to trigger the mental health condition.

PTSD is estimated to affect about one in every three people who have a traumatic experience, but it remains unclear exactly why some people develop the condition and others do not.

In addition to feelings of fear, individuals with PTSD may experience the following symptoms:

  • Feelings of isolation
  • Flashbacks
  • Irritability
  • Guilt
  • Nightmares
  • Frightening thoughts.

These symptoms typically begin within three months of a traumatic event, but some people do not notice symptoms until months after. If these persist for long enough, they can interfere with both working and personal relationships.

The National Institute of Mental Health explains that to be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all of the following for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms.

The condition may also be described differently in some situations. For example, for those whose symptoms emerge more than six months after experiencing trauma, it might be described as “delayed PTSD”.

This differs from “complex PTSD” which occurs when individuals have been through trauma at a young age and it has lasted for a long period of time. The third, “birth trauma,” develops after the experience of childbirth.

As the condition affects changes in an individual’s mood, symptoms tend to overlap with other conditions such as depression or anxiety. In fact, Mind, a leading mental health charity in the UK classes PTSD as an anxiety disorder.

Symptoms of anxiety can affect both the body and mind, sometimes causing a panic attack, which is a type of response to fear. During a panic attack, physical symptoms build up relatively quickly and can include:

  • A pounding or racing heartbeat
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
  • Feeling very hot or very cold
  • Sweating, trembling or shaking
  • Nausea (feeling sick)
  • Pain in your chest or abdomen
  • Struggling to breathe or feeling like you’re choking
  • Feeling like your legs are shaky or are turning to jelly
  • Feeling disconnected from your mind, body or surroundings, which are types of dissociation.

These can happen at different times for everyone and can last for anywhere between five to 20 minutes. For some, particular places, situations or activities can seem to trigger panic attacks. This could be connected to trauma they have experienced in the past.

PTSD affects everyone differently, so treatments are going to work differently for everyone too, especially considering how soon symptoms develop following trauma.

One of the most successful treatments is talking therapy. CBT for example aims to help individuals notice and challenge patterns of thoughts or behaviours so they feel better. Replacing negative thoughts associated with trauma and replacing them with positive ones can help to alleviate symptoms such as nightmares.

For mental health support contact Mind’s infoline on 0300 123 3393. Alternatively, call the Samaritans on 116 123 or test CONTACT to 85258.

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