What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition that may develop in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic, dangerous, or terrifying event. It was first identified in war veterans as early as the Civil War, when it was known as the “soldier’s heart,” but misconceptions of the disorder prevented it from being added to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1980.
Since then, mental health professionals have come to understand PTSD as a disorder that can impact anyone affected by a traumatic event, not just veterans. It can be triggered by all kinds of distressing experiences, such as a car accident, a natural disaster, rape, threats or acts of violence, and the death of a loved one.
If you’ve gone through a similar trauma, you may suffer from flashbacks, debilitating anxiety or panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, and uncontrollable thoughts about the experience. It’s normal for these symptoms to appear in anyone affected by a traumatic event, and they often resolve with healthy coping mechanisms and self-care after a few weeks.
When these symptoms persist without abating, worsen over months or years, and interfere with daily functioning, they are signs of PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD
The symptoms of PTSD may appear shortly after the traumatic event, but they can also take months or years to manifest. To be considered PTSD, the symptoms must last for more than a month and cause significant interference with work, relationships, and other life activities.
Not every person with PTSD will present the same set of symptoms. It is a highly individual disorder that may look different in different people. PTSD symptoms are grouped into four types: intrusion, avoidance, negative changes in cognition and mood, and changes in arousal and reactivity.
Intrusion describes behaviors that interrupt normal functioning. These include:
- Recurring, involuntary memories
- Flashbacks that replay the traumatic event, possibly accompanied by a racing heart and sweating
- Disturbing dreams or nightmares
- Amplified emotional or physical reactions to reminders of the event
Avoidance refers to behaviors that you might take to escape the effects of the traumatic event, such as:
- Attempting to avoid any reminder of the event, including people, places, and objects that trigger memories
- Avoiding thoughts or feelings about the event
- Resistance to talking about the event
Negative Changes in Cognition and Mood
PTSD affects every part of your being, including how you think and feel. These changes may show up as:
- Gaps in memory around the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts about yourself and others
- Hopelessness or despair about the future
- Distorted thoughts such as guilt, blame, and fear
- Decreased interest in activities and hobbies
- Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
- Feelings of detachment from others
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
- Emotional numbness
Changes in Arousal and Reactivity
Symptoms that impact arousal and reactivity are often constant and can affect your ability to complete daily tasks. These include:
- Being easier to startle or frighten than normal
- Prone to irritability or outbursts of anger
- Constant vigilance and heightened awareness of your surroundings
- Reckless or aggressive behavior
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
Symptoms of PTSD in Children
Children and teenagers are just as susceptible to PTSD after a traumatic event as adults, but their symptoms often present differently.
Younger children (6 and under) with PTSD may display the following symptoms:
- Wetting the bed even after potty training
- Forgetting how or refusing to talk
- Re-enacting the traumatic event through play
- Increase in frightening dreams that may or may not involve the event
- Being unusually clingy with a parent, caregiver, or another adult
Older children and teenagers will often show similar symptoms as adults. They are also likely to develop self-destructive or disruptive behaviors and may lash out from a place of guilt or revenge.
Risk Factors of PTSD
While anyone at any age can have PTSD, certain factors can increase the risk of developing after a traumatic event. Women are more prone to PTSD, with studies showing that the prevalence of PTSD over the lifespan is 10-12 percent among women and only 5-6 percent among men.
Other risk factors that can increase your chances of developing PTSD include:
- Experiencing an intensely traumatic event or long-term trauma
- Having experienced trauma in the past, such as childhood abuse
- Lack of social support
- Having a history of mental illness or substance abuse, either personally or within the family
- Dealing with an increased load of stress after the event or having an already stressful job
- Genetic influences
While these factors can increase your risk for PTSD, they do not guarantee it, nor do they prevent the possibility of successful treatment in the future.
Causes and Diagnosis of PTSD
The development of PTSD is triggered by a traumatic event and influenced by various risk factors. The cause of PTSD, however, is not fully understood by medical professionals, thanks to its complexity.
A mix of the following causes PTSD:
- Traumatic experiences, including the triggering event and other trauma throughout your life
- Mental health risks passed down from your family, such as a history of anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions
- Inherent personality traits
- How your brain regulates chemicals and responds to stress
While the exact cause of PTSD may be difficult to pin down, your doctor will be able to diagnose you based on several criteria. They will likely perform a physical exam to rule out any medical problems that may be causing your symptoms, conduct a psychological evaluation to understand your symptoms and the event(s) leading up to them, and consult the DSM to confirm your diagnosis.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must have experienced all of the following for at least one month following a traumatic event:
- At least one intrusion symptom
- At least one avoidance symptom
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
These symptoms must be severe enough to cause significant impairment to your daily functioning, such as your ability to work, take care of yourself, and engage in meaningful relationships.
PTSD is a long-term and sometimes debilitating condition that can seriously affect your quality of life, but you don’t have to resign yourself to living with it forever. There are many treatment options available with excellent outcomes.
Not everyone will need treatment for PTSD. For some people, it may resolve on its own after a few months. For others, treatments are a necessary intervention to help them get back to their everyday life.
The main treatments for people with PTSD are medications, psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy), or a combination of both.
The most commonly prescribed and well-researched medications for PTSD are antidepressants. Antidepressants can help alleviate a host of symptoms, such as sadness, guilt or blame, and numbness. They can also help with sleep problems and concentration.
Your doctor may also choose to prescribe an anti-anxiety medication. These can lift anxiety symptoms but are often only used for a shorter period, as they can be subject to abuse.
Finding the appropriate medication can take some time. Be sure to tell your doctor about any side effects you might be having, as you may need to adjust your dosage or your prescription.
Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy can help you process what you went through and allow you to move on. It involves talking with a mental health professional one-on-one or in a group.
There are many different styles and approaches to psychotherapy. Some methods that your therapist might use to treat your PTSD include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – a popular approach that helps you understand how you think about yourself and how to shift damaging thought patterns. It may involve exposure therapy or cognitive restructuring, enabling you to work through painful memories.
- Stress Inoculation Therapy – this style of talk therapy is designed to give you the tools you need to build healthy coping mechanisms for future triggers.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – this approach combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements meant to help you revisit traumatic memories and moderate your reactions to them.
Regardless of what approach your counselor chooses to take, psychotherapy can have lasting benefits for you and relieve the symptoms of your PTSD. It helps you develop stress management skills, control and regulate how you react to triggers, and process the emotions that arise.
Prevention and Self-Care
Beyond treatments administered by mental health professionals, you can take action in your own life to care for yourself to soothe temporary symptoms of PTSD or prevent them from reoccurring. A self-care regimen can give you power over your symptoms and help you regulate your nervous system.
- Learn your triggers – if you know what situations, people, places, etc., will trigger you, you can prepare yourself to deal with them when you need to.
- Reach out for support – support groups for trauma survivors are available, but if you’re not comfortable in a group setting, even just connecting with a friend or loved one over what you’re going through can be a big help.
- Meditate or breathe – meditation and breathing techniques can be great ways to lower stress, soothe yourself in moments of anxiety, or build resilience for future triggers.
- Take care of yourself – your mental health is essential, and so is every other aspect of your health. Focusing on your physical health through nutrition and exercise, for example, can improve your mental wellness.
- Forgive yourself – if you have a bad day, don’t be hard on yourself. Be patient with the process and know that it will take time.
Whatever you are going through, you’re not alone. Recovery from PTSD is possible, and there are many tools available between professional treatment and self-care techniques that can help you heal.
When to Seek Treatment for PTSD
If you’ve been struggling with PTSD, you might be wondering how to know when it’s the right time to seek treatment. You may be waiting for your symptoms to resolve independently without knowing how long it will take.
You don’t need to wait to seek treatment or suffer in silence. Many treatment programs, such as the services offered at Jackson House, can offer you an avenue to healing. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of PTSD for a month or longer, visit your doctor and discuss your options. You deserve it.
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If you’re a provider and need to send us information on a client, please feel free to fax us at 619-303-7044. If you need help immediately, call our 24-hour crisis line at 1-800-766-4274. If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Jackson House is licensed by the State of California Community Care Licensing Division and certified by the Department of Health Care Services. We are also CARF Accredited. If you have any client or quality of care concerns, please reach out to us at (888) 255-9280. If your concerns need further attention, you can contact the Department of Public Health at 619-278-3700 or the Community Care Licensing Division at 1-844-538-8766.