Home » Mental Health » What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When most people hear the term post-traumatic stress disorder, they most likely think about veterans returning from the horrors of war and having difficulty adjusting to life after their intense experiences. This is not an inaccurate picture of what post-traumatic stress disorder is, but someone can suffer from it without having to experience combat and the atrocities of war. Anyone who has experienced a shocking, terrifying, or dangerous event may experience the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and some of the symptoms can be subtle and difficult to notice. 

While dealing with a traumatic ordeal can alter the way a person’s mind works for a period of time, those that continue to experience problems long after the trauma has ended may have this disorder and should seek the counsel of a mental health professional.

What Does Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Mean? 

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder that is the result of a traumatic event in a person’s life. Some of the most common causes of post-traumatic stress disorders include:

  • Military combat exposure
  • Childhood physical abuse
  • Sexual violence
  • Physical assault
  • Being threatened with a weapon
  • An accident 
  • Natural disaster such as earthquake or tornado

A person that suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder will almost constantly feel a heightened sense of danger. Their natural fight or flight response has been dramatically altered, therefore causing them to feel stressed or fearful, even in the event of them being completely safe from harm. Post-traumatic stress disorder has had many names over the years especially in regards to war veterans. 

Due to the nature of battle in World War I, veterans suffering post-traumatic stress-related symptoms were said to have “shell shock”. By World War II the language was changed and updated to “battle fatigue”. The term post-traumatic stress disorder would not become the commonly used phrase until after the Vietnam War. According to the National Center for PTSD, it’s estimated that roughly 15 percent of Vietnam War veterans and 12 percent of Gulf War veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder. 

What Are the Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? 

While some post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms will start within a month or so of a traumatic event, in some cases they do not appear until several years after the event. The symptoms that are experienced will vary in severity but tend to cause significant problems in both social and work situations, as well as relationships. 

The ability to perform normal and daily tasks for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder is often severely impacted. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are generally grouped into four separate categories: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. 

Intrusive Memories 

Constantly re-experiencing symptoms can cause severe problems in a person’s everyday routine. The symptoms can start from the persons’ own thoughts and feelings but may be triggered by words, objects, or situations. Some experiences may include:

  • Recurrent and unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
  • Relieving the traumatic event via flashbacks
  • Intense mental or physical distress when thinking or talking about the event
  • Upsetting or distressing dreams or nightmare about the traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress or a physical reaction to something reminding them about the traumatic event

Avoidance 

Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can result in trigger avoidance tendencies. These symptoms may cause a person to completely change their personal routine. For example, someone that normally drives a car may avoid driving or riding in a car after a traumatic car accident. Some other symptoms might be:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, activities, or people that remind them of the traumatic event

Negative changes in thinking and mood 

These symptoms based around a person’s cognition and mood can begin or worsen after the traumatic event occurs, but are not a result of injury or substance use. They may make a person feel more alienated and detached from their friends and family members. Some examples are:

  • Negative thought about themself and other people in the world
  • A sense of hopelessness about the future
  • Memory issues, including not remembering important details about the traumatic event
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships with others
  • Lack of interest in activities that used to be enjoyed
  • Difficult experience positive emotions and feelings
  • The feeling of being emotionally numb

Changes in physical and emotional reactions 

These arousal and reactivity-oriented symptoms are usually constant, as opposed to requiring a trigger or catalyst. By feeling stressed, angry, or fearful these symptoms may make it hard to perform daily tasks as simple as sleeping, eating, or concentrating. Some examples would be:

  • Being easily startled or frightened and having an exaggerated response
  • Always on guard for potential danger
  • Self-destructive behavior, for example, drinking too much or driving too fast
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble staying focused 
  • Constantly feeling on edge
  • Irritability, angry outburst, or generally aggressive behavior
  • Overwhelming sense of shame or guilt

Panic Attacks

In addition to these symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder will very often cause a person to experience depression and panic attacks. Symptoms for panic attacks may include:

  • Agitation
  • Excitability
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Trembling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea 
  • Dizziness 
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting 
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Headaches

What Are the Treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? 

The main treatments for people that experience post-traumatic stress disorder are psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Everyone that is affected by post-traumatic stress disorder will experience it differently and so a treatment that works for one person may not for another. Some people may need to try different treatments in order to find out what works the best for their specific symptoms. 

Medication 

The most prescribed type of medication for anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder is antidepressants, which may help to control the symptoms of sadness, worry, anger and numbness. Other medications may be useful for treating specific symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping and nightmares. A doctor and patient would need to work together in order to find the best medication along with the right dosage. 

Psychotherapy

Otherwise known as talk therapy, this treatment involves talking with a mental health professional in order to help treat the condition. Talk therapy may occur in personal one-on-one sessions or in a group setting. Talk therapy treatments will usually last for six to 12 weeks but may last longer depending on the severity of the symptoms. There are a few different types of therapy available to treat post-traumatic stress disorder with some of them targeting the symptoms specifically. Other therapies may include a focus on the social, family, or job-related issues that may have been created due to the symptoms. The most effective therapies should include education about the symptoms, teaching skills to help identify triggers, and teaching skills to better cope with and manage the symptoms. One of the most effective types of therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy, especially the following subcategories:

  • Exposure therapy. This method of treatment aims to help people to face and control their fears by gradually exposing them to the trauma they experienced but in a safe and controlled way. It also incorporates imagining, writing or visiting the place where the event happened. The goal is to use these tools in order to help someone cope with their feelings and emotions regarding the event.

  • Cognitive restructuring. This method helps people to make sense of their bad memories. Often a person will misremember the event from how it occurred. They may also feel guilt or shame about something that is not actually their fault. The goal is to help the person look at what happened in a more realistic way.

Other Options 

In addition to the above-listed options, there are other ways to help reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic disorder that do not require getting a medical professional involved. They include:

  • Engage in exercise to help reduce stress
  • Eat a balanced and healthy diet
  • Break up large tasks into smaller ones to avoid being overwhelmed
  • Spend more time with people and talk with them about the experience and triggers
  • Seek out comforting situations, places, and people

The Takeaway

Post-traumatic stress disorder can be a mental health condition to live with. The effects of a traumatic event may take years to create symptoms but when they do, they can often severely hamper a person’s ability to function in daily life

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a fairly common experience and does not have to be the result of being in war. Almost half of all women and 60 percent of men will experience trauma at least once in their lives. Just under 8 percent of the total population (10 percent of women and 4 percent of men) will experience post-traumatic so it’s not a rare condition.

While there is no set cure for this disorder, there are several options for treatments. Meeting with a medical professional or psychiatrist is the best option for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and improving overall mental health and emotional stability. 

Sources

  1. What Is PTSD? (psychiatry.org)
  2. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (mayoclinic.org)
  3. NIMH · Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (nimh.nih.gov)
  4. How Common is PTSD in Adults? – PTSD: National Center for PTSD (ptsd.va.gov)