If you live through a terrifying event or experience, such as a horrific car crash, a killer tornado that cripples your hometown, or domestic violence, you are likely to feel shattered and experience difficulty coping and adjusting. However, as time goes on, and with good individual care, you are likely to get better and move on with your life. On the other hand, if you can’t stop reliving the experiences and it affects your everyday functioning, you might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you are suffering from this debilitating condition, you are not alone, but great treatment options are available.
One of the few mental illnesses triggered by an outside, traumatizing event, you can suffer from PTSD by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. What is considered traumatic? Certain traumatic events can be so severely frightening and overwhelming to individuals that they can cause temporary and sometimes permanent changes to how we physically and psychologically respond to stress in our lives. You may find yourself wondering what types of trauma can cause these changes to our physical and psychological responses. Any unexpected violation to our physical and mental well-being can be considered a trauma. Some of the most common traumatic events that may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder include:
- Sudden death of a loved one
- Natural disasters (e.g., tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes)
- Terrorist attacks
- Car or plane crashes
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Childhood neglect
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will suffer from PTSD. As mentioned above, it’s normal to have nightmares, be fearful, and find difficulty “forgetting” what happened. When you get stuck in a state of fear and shock and your symptoms don’t improve or get worse, post-traumatic stress disorder is likely settling in because your body is having problems restoring itself to equilibrium.
PTSD is found to occur in approximately one in ten of individuals affected by a traumatic event. On average, 60% of men and 50% of women experience a traumatic event during their lifetimes. Of these, 8% of men are found to develop PTSD and 20% of women are found to develop PTSD. Individuals experiencing rape have a higher likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder over any of traumatic event; therefore, as women are more likely to be raped than men (9% vs. 1% likelihood), this explains the imbalance in the statistics of post-traumatic stress disorder among genders. Additional research shows the majority of individuals affected by post-traumatic stress disorder also suffer from another psychological disorder (e.g., depression, anxiety). These individuals are also more prone to problems with substance abuse of drugs and/or alcohol.
What are the Symptoms?
There is no way of knowing who will develop post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatizing event. As evidenced by past research, the majority of people who witness or live through a traumatic event will not suffer from PTSD. Most will likely have memories of the events, but their lives will not become negatively impacted by it in their daily interactions.
Symptoms of PTSD are often grouped into types. These types include: avoidance, intrusive memories, changes in emotional reactions, and negative changes in thinking and mood. The most common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder include flashbacks, jumpiness (literally “jumping out of one’s skin”), emotional detachment. These symptoms can come and go and vary in intensity. We outline the four types below:
- Avoiding talking about or thinking about the traumatic event
- Avoiding places, activities, or people that remind you of the traumatic event
- Flashbacks – reliving the event as if it were happening all over again
- Upsetting dreams/nightmares about the traumatic event
- Recurrent memories of the traumatic event – even when you are trying not to think about them – as if they won’t “leave your mind”
- Experiencing severe emotional distress or physical reactions to things that remind you of the traumatic event
Changes in Emotional Reactions
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
- Jumpiness – being easily startled or frightened – jumping out of your skin
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty concentrating
- Always in “defense” mode – on guard for danger
- Angry outburst
- Aggressive behavior
- Self-destructive behavior (e.g., reckless driving, substance abuse)
Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood
- Feeling negatively about yourself and others
- Lack of interest in activities you once found enjoyment in
- Difficulty maintaining relationships with others
- Memory problems – not being able to remember parts of the traumatic event
- Feelings of hopelessness for the future (e.g., marriage, career, living a normal life span)
- Emotional numbness – feeling detached from others
- Inability to experience positive emotions
Children and adolescents may exhibit slightly different symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder than adults. These symptoms include:
- Severe separation anxiety – fear of being separated from their parents
- Somber play that showcases a revival of the traumatic events
- Phobias unrelated to the traumatic event (e.g., fear of monsters)
- Acting out the traumatic experience through drawings, social play, or stories
- Loss of previously acquired skills (e.g., regression in toilet training)
- Sleep problems and nightmares not related to the event
- Irritability and aggression
- Aches and pains that have no apparent cause
Causes, Risk Factors, and Diagnosis
You are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder if the traumatic event you endure is life threatening or severely traumatic to your personal safety. Additionally, the more exposure to the event or prolonged exposure to a traumatic event is also more likely to increase your chances of developing PTSD. Other risk factors of post-traumatic stress disorder include:
- Family history of PTSD and depression
- History of physical or sexual abuse
- High level of stress in your daily life
- Lack of coping skills
- Not getting help or support after the traumatic event
- History of depression, anxiety, or other mental illness
- History of substance abuse
- Careers that exposure you to traumatic experiences (e.g., military, police, first responders)
- Experiencing previous traumatic events, especially early in one’s life
- Extent that the traumatic event was uncontrollable, inescapable, or unexpected
- Type of traumatic event – intentional, human-afflicted harm (e.g., rape, sexual abuse) is more likely to result in PTSD than an act of God (e.g., hurricane, earthquake)
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can increase your chances for other mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, suicide, eating disorders, and issues with drugs and alcohol. Therefore, it is especially important to seek treatment if you are suffering from PTSD for your own well-being. You should seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder if you are experiencing any of these symptoms and are not able to function or cannot function effectively in your day-to-day life.
Diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is completed by medical professionals. Your diagnosis will be based on psychological evaluations of your signs and symptoms. To be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, you must meet the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychological Association. In addition to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, you must experience one or more of the following after exposure to the traumatic event:
- Reliving the traumatic event
- Upsetting dreams/nightmares about the traumatic event
- Experience of flashbacks
- Experience of emotional distress related to the traumatic event
In combination with these symptoms, you may also experience debilitating behaviors and emotions one month or more post-traumatic event to include things such as avoidance behaviors, memory loss, emotional numbness, self-destructive behavior, and difficulty sleeping.
Treatment Options for Sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Several types of treatment options are available if you are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The most often prescribed method of treatment is psychotherapy. Medications and other types of physical treatment options are also prescribed. Your doctor will formulate the best treatment course of action for you.
Psychotherapy, often referred to as “talk therapy” has been shown to elicit great responses from sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. Cognitive therapy is focused on recognizing patterns of thinking that get you “stuck” in your emotional state. For example, this type of therapy might help you in recognizing cognitive patterns associated with negative perceptions of normal situations. Exposure therapy is often coupled with cognitive therapy if you have been diagnosed with PTSD. Exposure therapy focuses on safe exposure to what is causing you intense fear. This exposure enables you to cope with the stimulus effectively and rationally. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that combines exposure therapy with guided eye movements. These combination of events in EMDR help you in your cognitive processing of traumatic events and allow you to effectively change your reactions to these types of events.
Medications that have been found useful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder include antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), including Zoloft and Praxil, have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as antidepressant treatments for PTSD.
Anti-anxiety medications are typically prescribed short-term to relieve severe anxiety problems associated with PTSD. They are usually only prescribed temporarily because of the ease of addiction to this type of medication. Nightmare suppressant drugs (e.g., Prazosin) may also be prescribed if you are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to help you sleep more easily and with fewer disruptions.
If you have experienced a terrifying traumatic event and now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result, treatment does exist and following it can lead you to a life of well-being. To get the most of your treatment plans, follow these pieces of advice:
- Learn all you can about your disorder and what effects it has on your body – this allows you to recognize signs and symptoms and coping strategies
- Follow the treatment plans prescribed to you by your doctors and mental health providers – even if you are feeling “fine”
- Don’t turn to drugs and alcohol to “numb” your feelings
- Stay healthy – eat well-balanced meals and exercise on a regular basis
- Find support groups that can help you through difficult times – and to have a support base that you can talk to about anything