Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, affects an estimated 7.7 million adult Americans within any given year, according to the National Institutes of Health. While primarily an adult condition, PTSD can occur at any age. This condition develops in response to traumatic events or periods in a person’s life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder causes changes in brain structure as well as in how the brain functions. Some people may experience PTSD symptoms directly after a traumatic event while others may not show symptoms for months or even years after.
Risk factors for developing post-traumatic stress disorder have to do with internal and external factors, both of which can impact a person’s ability to cope with trauma. Treatments for PTSD include medications, various forms of therapy and ongoing support group work. The severity of a person’s symptoms ultimately determines which course of treatment will work best.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Most everyone experiences feelings of fear when confronted with a threat, danger or life-threatening circumstances. This type of reaction is normal. People who continue to feel fear weeks or even months after a traumatic event may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, traumatic events known to trigger PTSD can take the form of:
- Witnessing a violent event
- Being a victim
- Car accident
- Natural disasters
- Terrorist incidents
- Physical abuse or assault
- Sexual abuse or assault
In the case of physical and/or sexual abuse during childhood, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can extend well into adulthood, especially when left untreated.
Criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Fear reactions in response to trauma only become problematic when they persist for long periods of time. Someone who likely suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder will continue to experience fear-based reactions for a month or longer.
According to the Appalachian State University, three types of symptoms characterize PTSD –
- Emotional numbness in response to people, places and situations that act as reminders of the trauma
- Re-living the trauma on a frequent basis through nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive memories
- A hyper arousal state that impairs a person’s ability to sleep and/or concentrate
A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder can only be made when one or more of the following affects a person’s daily life –
- Actual physical reactions to reminders of the trauma
- Flashbacks that cause a person to relive the event
- Recurring dreams that carry the same affect or “feeling content” as the trauma
- Experiencing psychological distress when exposed to external cues that symbolize a traumatic event
- Spontaneous and recurrent memories of the event
Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Without treatment, post-traumatic stress disorder can have debilitating effects within a person’s daily life and ultimately warp his or her sense of self and well-being. These effects permeate most every area of daily life and ultimately impair a person’s ability to “live” life with any sense of safety or freedom.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder typically take the form of –
- Extreme feelings of anxiety – this may include panic attacks, racing heartbeat, profuse sweating, episodes of dizziness, disorientation and/or shortness of breath
- Distrustful disposition – an inability to trust others in general, seeing the world as a dangerous place
- Feelings of depression – ongoing sense of emptiness and sadness, an overall sense of hopelessness, inability to have fun, feelings of shame and guilt
- Physical problems – stomach pains, persistent backache, headaches, tightness or burning sensation in the chest, diarrhea, problems sleeping
- Daily living impairments – feeling uneasy in social situations, problems functioning at work, difficulty forming close or genuine relationships with others
- Substance abuse problems – attempts to self-medicate PTSD symptoms through drug and/or alcohol use
While not everyone experiences traumatic events or periods within their lifetime, not everyone who does develops post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, two sets of factors – risk factors and resilience factors – influence whether or not a person will develop PTSD after experiencing a trauma.
The more risk factors a person has the more likely he or she will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The more resilience factors a person has the better he or she is able to cope with a traumatic event and not develop the disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder risk factors take the form of:
- Having an existing psychological disorder or a history of mental illness
- Witnessing events where others get hurt or killed
- Experiencing a major, stress-inducing life event (divorce, losing a job, getting injured) after a traumatic event
- Getting injured or hurt
- Lack of a support system (friends, family) after experiencing a traumatic event
Resilience factors that help ward off post-traumatic stress disorder include –
- The ability to take an active role in the face of one’s fear
- Viewing oneself as having done the right thing during the course of the traumatic event
- The ability to enlist support from others to help deal with what happened
- Employing a coping strategy that gets a person through the emotions arising from a traumatic event
- Joining a support group
In spite of the harmful effects post-traumatic stress disorder can have in a person’s life, the condition is highly treatable. Treatment approaches commonly used include medications and behavioral therapy. In general, the severity of a person’s condition may require both forms of treatment or just one form of treatment.
Medication treatments help to relieve or reduce PTSD symptoms, especially in cases where a person’s symptoms prevent him or her from functioning in everyday life. Medications used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder include:
- Anti-anxiety medications
Reducing symptom severity through medication treatments enables sufferers to gain the full benefits of behavioral therapy treatment.
Behavioral therapy treatments are designed to help a person work through the emotions brought on by the traumatic event. Cognitive behavioral therapies help a person change the thought patterns that support feelings of depression and anxiety. Psychodynamic psychotherapy approaches help a person identify present-day life situations that trigger PTSD symptoms and develop healthy behaviors for coping with PTSD triggers.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can quickly become an unmanageable condition without needed treatment. With the proper treatment, even people living with severe forms of PTSD can lead healthy, normal lives.