Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a traumatic event. A traumatic event is a life-threatening event such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood. Most survivors of trauma return to normal given a little time. However, some people will have stress reactions that do not go away on their own or may even get worse over time. These individuals may develop PTSD.
There are clear biological changes that are associated with PTSD. PTSD is complicated by the fact that people with PTSD often may develop additional disorders such as depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other problems of physical and mental health. These problems may lead to impairment of the person’s ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems and family problems.
Symptoms of PTSD
Although PTSD symptoms can begin right after a traumatic event, PTSD is not diagnosed unless the symptoms last for at least one month, and either cause significant distress or interfere with work or home life. To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have three different types of symptoms: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance and numbing symptoms, and arousal symptoms.
Re-experiencing symptoms are symptoms that involve reliving the traumatic event. There are a number of ways in which people may relive a trauma. They may have upsetting memories of the traumatic event. These memories can come back when they are not expecting them. At other times the memories may be triggered by a traumatic reminder such as when a rape victim sees a news report of a recent sexual assault. Sometimes these memories can feel so real it is as if the event is actually happening again. This is called a “flashback.” Reliving the event may cause intense feelings of fear, helplessness, and horror similar to the feelings they had when the event took place.
Avoidance and Numbing Symptoms:
Avoidance symptoms are efforts people make to avoid the traumatic event. Individuals with PTSD may try to avoid situations that trigger memories of the traumatic event. They may avoid going near places where the trauma occurred or seeing TV programs or news reports about similar events. They may avoid other sights, sounds, smells, or people that are reminders of the traumatic event. Numbing symptoms are another way to avoid the traumatic event. Individuals with PTSD may find it difficult to be in to
their feelings or express emotions toward other people. For example, they may feel emotionally “numb” and may isolate from others.
People with PTSD may feel constantly alert after the traumatic event. This is known as increased emotional arousal, and it can cause difficulty sleeping, outbursts of anger or irritability, and difficulty concentrating. They may find that they are constantly “on guard” and on the lookout for signs of danger. They may also find that they get startled.
Causes of developing PTSD?
Most people who experience a traumatic event will not develop PTSD. However, the risk for developing PTSD increases if people:
Were directly exposed to the traumatic event as a victim or a witness
Were seriously injured during the trauma
Experienced a trauma that was long lasting or very severe
Saw themselves or a family member as being in imminent danger
Had a severe negative reaction during the event, such as feeling detached from one’s surroundings or having a panic attack
Felt helpless during the trauma and were unable to help themselves or a loved one.
Many scientists are studying why some people develop PTSD and others do not. Some are focusing on genes that play a role in creating fear memories, and others are examining parts of the brain involved in dealing with fear and stress. It appears that the more severe, long-lasting, or dangerous a traumatic event, the more vulnerable a person is to developing PTSD. Experiencing a trauma caused by others, such as rape, war, and assault are also more likely to result in developing PTSD.
If symptoms last beyond a few weeks where it starts to interfere in daily functioning, seek professional help. Most people who receive treatment for PTSD see significant improvement and enjoy a better quality of life. A variety of good options for treatment are available, so you can be hopeful that you or a loved one could feel better soon. Effective treatments include cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), such as exposure therapy, cognitive therapy, and anxiety management, as well as the medication class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The National Institute of Mental Health includes cognitive-behavioural therapy as an effective treatment option that usually lasts 6 to 12 weeks, although it may take longer. This type of therapy teaches helpful ways to react to frightening events that trigger PTSD symptoms:
Educates about trauma and its effects.
Uses relaxation and anger control skills.
Provides tips for better sleep, diet, and exercise habits.
Helps people identify and deal with guilt, shame, and other feelings about a traumatic event.
Focuses on changing how people react to PTSD symptoms.
PTSD is treated by a variety of forms of psychotherapy (talk therapy) and pharmacotherapy (medication). There is no single best treatment, but some treatments appear to be quite promising, especially cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT includes a number of diverse but related techniques such as cognitive restructuring, exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
No one treatment for PTSD or related disorders is right for everyone and what works for one person may not be the best choice for someone else. The course of treatment should be tailored for one’s individual needs. A doctor should always be consulted to explain why a particular type of treatment is recommended, other available options, and what one must do to fully participate in one’s recovery