Everyone encounters stressful situations in their daily lives. The effects of these situations typically go away when the stressful event is over or shortly thereafter. When someone has a strong emotional and physical response to a disturbing or stressful event, and it hinders their ability to cope, it’s considered to be traumatic.
A traumatic event can vary in severity, and it may or may not lead to a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder. While many people associate PTSD with soldiers who have witnessed combat in war, it’s actually a disorder that can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed an event that is traumatic to them.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological disorder, can develop after a person experiences a traumatic event – either directly or by witnessing it. However, just because a person is exposed to trauma, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will develop PTSD as a result. It’s estimated that about 70% of people experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes, but only about 20% of those people go on to develop PTSD.
What Causes PTSD?
Any event that an individual finds traumatic can lead to developing PTSD. It doesn’t have to be an extreme event or long-lasting. When the brain and body react to a perceived threat, the person will instinctually go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. For most people, when the threat is gone, the physical reaction also goes away (though it may take a while). However, for people who develop PTSD, the reactive feeling (fight, flight, or freeze) doesn’t subside entirely, or it repeatedly reactivates, even when there is no longer a threat. The reactivation isn’t something that people with PTSD can control or just “get over.” They will most likely need professional help to manage their symptoms.
Some of the most common traumatic events that may result in a person developing of PTSD include:
- Military combat
- Sexual assault, molestation, or rape
- Physical abuse (ongoing or a single event)
- Childhood neglect
- Auto accidents
- Loved one’s serious illness or death
- Natural disasters – hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods
- Terrorist attacks
Any event that an individual finds traumatic can lead to PTSD. It may be an event that is completely different than what is listed. The traumatic event can also be an event that someone simply witnesses. It doesn’t have to be directly experienced to develop PTSD.
What are the Symptoms of PTSD?
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder may differ from person to person. While symptoms often start soon after the traumatic event, for some individuals, they may not appear for months or even years afterward. Symptoms may also come and go over time. However, to receive a diagnosis of PTSD, symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance, and arousal must be present and persistent.
The following are common PTSD symptoms:
Re-experiencing Symptoms – These involve reliving the traumatic experience and may be characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive negative thoughts about the event. These memories of the trauma may be triggered by something – a combat veteran hearing a car backfire, a rape victim seeing a dramatization of a sexual assault in a movie or on television – or they can come on seemingly out of nowhere. They are often very troubling because, for the person experiencing them, they can feel like a reliving of the event, as if it is actually happening to them again.
Avoidance and Numbing Symptoms – These symptoms are efforts that people make to avoid the traumatic event. That may mean that they physically avoid going near people or places (or sights, sounds, or smells) that remind them of the event. People with PTSD may also attempt to avoid with numbing methods. They tend to isolate themselves from others and may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to numb their thoughts and feelings.
Arousal Symptoms – These symptoms make the PTSD sufferer feel like they are constantly on guard or alert. They can cause insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and outbursts of anger. Additionally, the individual may have an exaggerated startle response to noises or sights.
Many people who develop PTSD also experience depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt and shame, emotional detachment, loss of enjoyment in activities they used to enjoy, or memory loss.
After a traumatic event, most people will have some of these symptoms of PTSD, but for many, they will fade over a short period of time. In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, the symptoms must persist for longer than a month. A diagnosis must be made by a medical professional so that the individual receives proper education and treatment for PTSD.
If you think that you have identified PTSD, either in yourself or someone else, you should seek medical attention for diagnosis and treatment. There is help available.
Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Fortunately, PTSD is treatable. Many people recover fully from the disorder with proper treatment. For those who continue to experience symptoms even with treatment, they are often lessened in frequency and intensity, making normal life manageable again. PTSD is commonly treated with a combination of medication and therapy, and peer support can play a vital role in recovery.
Living with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be difficult, frustrating, and exhausting – for some, it may be worse than the trauma that caused it. But while it may seem to be never-ending, there is good news, treatment for PTSD is available and effective.
Treatment for PTSD, like treatments for many other mental health issues, is varied and must be tailored to the individual. What works for some may not work for others. Fortunately, there are many ways to treat PTSD, and you and your doctor can work together to find what is effective for you.
The most common treatment for PTSD involves the combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). For many sufferers, this combination lessens the symptoms of PTSD to the point of manageability, and they are able to live normal, fulfilling lives. For others who need additional therapies to cope, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is often helpful – especially in lessening the reliving symptoms of PTSD.
There are also complementary and alternative therapies that can be tried. The important thing to remember is that just because one thing doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that it is a hopeless situation. It just means that you haven’t found the right treatment for you – yet.
You don’t have to continue to suffer from PTSD. Many PTSD treatment centers utilize an individualized approach to treatment. They can help you find the combination of therapies that will work for you. Don’t give up. You are a trauma survivor already. You can be a PTSD survivor as well.