Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder that’s triggered by a traumatic event. You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you experience or witness an event that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror.
Many people who are involved in traumatic events have brief period of difficulty adjusting and coping. But with time and healthy coping methods, such traumatic reactions usually get better. In some cases, though, the symptoms can get worse or last for months or even years. Sometimes they may completely disrupt your life. In these cases, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Getting treatment as soon as possible after post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms develop may prevent PTSD from becoming a long-term condition.
Signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder typically begin within three months of a traumatic event. In a small number of cases, though, PTSD symptoms may not occur until years after the event.
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are commonly grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyper arousal).
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
- Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time
- Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include:
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include:
- Irritability or anger
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
- Trouble sleeping
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can come and go. You may have more post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms during times of higher stress or when you experience reminders of what you went through. You may hear a car backfire and relive combat experiences, for instance. Or you may see a report on the news about a rape, and feel again the horror and fear of your own assault.
When to see a doctor
It’s normal to have a wide range of feelings and emotions after a traumatic event. The feelings you experience may include fear and anxiety, a lack of focus, sadness, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, or bouts of crying that come easily. You may have recurrent nightmares or thoughts about the event. This doesn’t mean you have post-traumatic stress disorder.
But if you have these disturbing feelings for more than a month, if they’re severe, or if you feel you’re having trouble getting your life back under control, consider talking to your health care professional. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent PTSD symptoms from getting worse.
In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may be so severe that you need emergency help, especially if you’re thinking about harming yourself or someone else. If possible, call 911 or other emergency services, or ask a supportive family member or friend for help.
Researchers are still trying to better understand what causes someone to get post-traumatic stress disorder. As with most mental illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder is probably caused by a complex mix of:
- Inherited predisposition to psychiatric illness, especially anxiety and depression
- Your life experiences, including the amount and severity of trauma you’ve been exposed to since early childhood
- The inherited aspects of your personality â€” often called your temperament
- The way your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones your body releases in response to stress
Although researchers don’t know exactly what causes post-traumatic stress disorder, they do know some of the risk factors involved, or the things that make you more likely to get PTSD.
People of all ages can have post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s relatively common among adults, with about 8 percent of the population having PTSD at some time in their lives. Post-traumatic stress disorder is especially common among those who have served in combat, and it’s sometimes called “shell shock,” “battle fatigue” or “combat stress.”
Women are four times more likely than men to develop PTSD. Experts believe this is because women are at increased risk of experiencing the kinds of interpersonal violence such as sexual violence most likely to lead to PTSD.
Kinds of traumatic events
In men, the most common events leading to the development of PTSD include:
- Combat exposure
- Childhood neglect and physical abuse
In women, traumatic events most often associated with PTSD include:
- Sexual molestation
- Physical attack
- Being threatened with a weapon
- Childhood physical abuse
But many other traumatic events also can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, including fire, natural disaster, mugging, robbery, assault, civil conflict, car accident, plane crash, torture, kidnapping, life-threatening medical diagnosis, terrorist attack and other extreme or life-threatening events.
Increasing your risk
Not everyone who experiences these kinds of traumatic events goes on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Some factors that may make you more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event include:
- The traumatic event is especially severe or intense.
- The traumatic event was long-lasting.
- Having an existing mental health condition.
- Lacking a good support system of family and friends.
- Having first-degree relatives with PTSD.
- Having first-degree relatives with depression.
- Having been abused or neglected as a child.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can disrupt your whole life: your job, your relationships and even your enjoyment of everyday activities.
Having PTSD also may place you at a higher risk of other mental health problems, including:
- Drug abuse
- Alcohol abuse
- Eating disorders
- Suicidal thoughts and actions
In addition, studies of war veterans have demonstrated a link between PTSD and the development of medical illnesses, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic pain
- Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disease
- Musculoskeletal conditions
More research is needed to understand the relationship between PTSD and physical health problems.
If you have thoughts of suicide, go to an emergency room or call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
If you have less urgent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, make an appointment with your family doctor or general practitioner. Your doctor can help you begin the process of understanding whether your physical and emotional symptoms may be related to a traumatic experience. In many cases, your doctor may refer you to a mental health professional who can help make a diagnosis and create the right treatment plan for you.
Here’s some information to help you prepare for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Write down any symptoms you’ve been experiencing, and for how long.
- Write down your key personal information, especially events or experiences even in your distant past that have made you feel intense fear, helplessness or horror. It will help your doctor to know if there are memories you can’t directly access without feeling an overwhelming need to push them out of your mind.
- Make a list of your medical information, including other physical or mental health conditions with which you’ve been diagnosed. Also write down the names of any medications, including over-the-counter medications, you’re taking.
- Take a trusted family member or friend along, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to soak up all the information provided to you during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor in advance so that you can make the most of your appointment.
For PTSD, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What do you believe is causing my symptoms?
- Are there any other possible causes?
- How will you determine my diagnosis?
- Is my condition likely temporary or chronic?
- Do you recommend treatment? If yes, with what types of therapy?
- How soon do you expect my symptoms to improve?
- Does PTSD increase my risk of other mental health problems?
- Should I see a mental health specialist?
- Do you recommend any temporary changes at home, work or school to encourage recovery?
- Would it help my recovery to tell my teachers or work colleagues about my diagnosis?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me? What Web sites do you recommend visiting?
In addition to the questions that you’ve prepared to ask your doctor, don’t hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don’t understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Being ready to answer your doctor’s questions may reserve time to go over any points you want to talk about in-depth. You should be prepared to answer the following questions from your doctor:
- What are your symptoms?
- When did you or your loved ones first notice your symptoms?
- Have you ever experienced or witnessed an event that was life-threatening to you or someone else?
- Have you ever been physically, sexually or emotionally harmed?
- Do you have disturbing thoughts, memories or nightmares of the trauma you experienced?
- Do you ever feel as if you are reliving the traumatic event, through flashbacks or hallucinations?
- Do you avoid certain people, places or situations that remind you of the traumatic experience?
- Have you lost interest in things or felt numb?
- Do you feel jumpy, on guard, or easily startled?
- Do you frequently feel irritable or angry?
- Are you having trouble sleeping?
- Is anything happening in your life now that is making you feel unsafe?
- Have been having any problems at school or work?
- Have you been having problems in your personal relationships?
- Have you ever thought about harming yourself or others?
- Do you drink alcohol or use illicit drugs? How often?
- Have you been treated for other psychiatric symptoms or mental illness in the past? If yes, what type of therapy was most beneficial?
What you can do in the meantime
There are steps you can take to improve your ability to cope while you’re waiting for your appointment with a doctor. What works best for you is likely to be highly personal. Talking with friends or family about your feelings or trauma you’ve experienced may be helpful, but don’t push yourself beyond what’s emotionally tolerable in terms of how much to share, and with whom.
If possible, you may find it especially helpful to talk with others who have gone through a traumatic experience similar to yours. Exercise and relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation also may improve your symptoms.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is diagnosed based on signs and symptoms and a thorough psychological evaluation. Your doctor or mental health professional will ask you to describe the signs and symptoms you’re experiencing what they are, when they occur, how intense they are and how long they last. Your doctor also might ask you to describe the event that led up to your symptoms. You may also have a physical exam to check for any other medical problems.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must meet criteria spelled out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. This manual is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to determine reimbursement for treatment.
Criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder to be diagnosed include :
- You experienced or witnessed an event that involved death or serious injury, or the threat of death or serious injury
- Your response to the event involved intense fear, horror or a sense of helplessness
- You relive experiences of the event, such as having distressing images and memories, upsetting dreams, flashbacks, or even physical reactions
- You try to avoid situations or things that remind you of the traumatic event or feel a sense of emotional numbness
- You feel as if you’re constantly on guard or alert for signs of danger, which may make you have trouble sleeping or concentrating
- Your symptoms last longer than one month
- The symptoms cause significant distress in your life or interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks
Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment can be very effective and help you regain a sense of control over your life. With successful post-traumatic stress disorder treatment, you can also feel better about yourself and learn ways to cope if any symptoms arise again.
Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment often includes both medications and psychotherapy. This combined approach can help improve your symptoms and teach you skills to cope better with the traumatic event and its aftermath.
Several types of medications can help symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder get better. Antidepressants can help symptoms of both depression and anxiety. They can also help improve sleep problems and improve your concentration. Anti-anxiety medications also can improve feelings of anxiety and stress.
If your symptoms include recurrent nightmares, a drug called prazosin may help. Prazosin, which has been used for years in the treatment of hypertension, also blocks the brain’s response to an adrenaline-like brain chemical called norepinephrine. Prazosin can reduce or suppress nightmares in many people with PTSD.
Which medications are best for you depends on your specific symptoms and situation. You and your doctor must work together to find medications that work well and have the fewest side effects. It may take a few tries. But you may see an improvement in your mood and other symptoms within a few weeks. Be sure to tell your health care professional about any side effects or problems you have with the medications, as you may be able to try something different.
Several forms of therapy may be used to treat both children and adults with post-traumatic stress disorder. Which form is best for you depends on your symptoms and situation. You may try one type and then a different type of therapy, or combine elements of several. You may also try individual therapy, group therapy or both. Group therapy can offer a way to connect to others going through similar experiences.
Some types of therapy used in PTSD treatment include:
- Cognitive therapy. This type of talk therapy helps you identify and change self-destructive thought (cognitive) patterns.
- Exposure therapy. This behavioral therapy technique helps you safely confront the very thing that you find upsetting or disturbing, so that you can learn to cope effectively with it.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This type of therapy combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories.
- Cognitive behavior therapy. This approach combines cognitive and behavior therapy to help you identify unhealthy beliefs and behaviors and replace them with positive ones.
All these approaches can help you gain control of the fear and distress that happen after a traumatic event. The type of therapy that may be best for you depends on a number of factors that you and your health care professional can discuss.
Medications and psychotherapy also can help you if you’ve developed other problems related to your traumatic experience, such as depression, anxiety, or alcohol or substance abuse. You don’t have to try to handle the burden of PTSD on your own.
If stress and other problems caused by a traumatic event affect your life, seeing your health care professional is an important first step. But you can take actions to help yourself cope as you continue with treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Things you can do include:
- Follow your health professional’s instructions. Although it may take a while to feel benefits from therapy or medications, most people do recover. Remind yourself that it takes time. Healing won’t come overnight. Following your treatment plan will help move you forward.
- Take care of yourself. Get enough rest, eat a balanced diet, exercise and take time to relax. Avoid caffeine and nicotine, which can worsen anxiety.
- Don’t self-medicate. Turning to alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings isn’t healthy, even though it may be a tempting way to cope. It can lead to more problems down the road and prevent real healing.
- Break the cycle. When you feel anxious, take a brisk walk or delve into a hobby to refocus.
- Talk to someone. Stay connected with supportive and caring family, friends, faith leaders or others. You don’t have to talk about what happened, if you don’t want to. Just sharing time with loved ones can offer healing and comfort.
- Consider a support group. Many communities have support groups geared for specific situations. Ask your health care professional for help finding one, look in your local phone book, or contact your community’s social services system.
When someone you love has PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder can significantly strain the emotional and mental health of the affected person’s caregivers and loved ones. In fact, the term “compassion fatigue” was coined to describe the feelings, such as depression and helplessness, that commonly develop in those close to a person with PTSD.
Hearing about the trauma that led to your loved one’s PTSD may be extremely painful for you, and may cause you to relive difficult events in your own life. The person you love may seem like a different person than you knew before the trauma angry and irritable, for example, or withdrawn and depressed.
If someone you love has PTSD, you may find yourself avoiding his or her attempts to talk about the trauma, or feeling hopeless that your loved one’s symptoms will improve. At the same time, you may feel guilty that you can’t fix your loved one or hurry up his or her process of healing.
In order to take care of yourself and your loved one, it’s critical that you make your own mental health a priority. Eat right, exercise, and rest. Continue to take time alone or with friends, doing activities that help you recharge. If you continue to have difficulty coping, talk with your doctor. He or she may refer you to a therapist who can help you work through your emotions.
After surviving a traumatic event, many people have PTSD-like symptoms at first, such as being unable to stop thinking about what’s happened. Fear, anxiety, anger, depression, guilt all are common reactions to trauma. Although you may not want to talk about it to anyone or you don’t want to even think about what’s happened, getting support can help you recover. This may mean turning to supportive family and friends who will listen and offer comfort. It may mean that you seek out a mental health professional for a brief course of therapy. Some people also may find it helpful to turn to their faith community or a pastoral crisis counselor.
However you choose to get support and help, doing so can help prevent normal stress reactions from getting worse and developing into post-traumatic stress disorder. Getting support may also help prevent you from turning to unhealthy coping methods, such as alcohol use
Image: Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net
Dr. Zen Lewis has over 20 years experience in psychotherapy, counseling, education and public speaking. Dr. Zen’s Psychotherapy Services offices for Therapy Services are located in Los Angeles and Burbank, CA and various locations in South Florida.
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