Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic or terrifying event. Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event can make a person feel scared, anxious, sad or helpless. Many people have difficulty coping after a traumatic event, but in time will find a way to adjust and recover. For those afflicted with PTSD, they may not find relief to their symptoms for months or years after the event took place. Symptoms may become severe enough to interfere with the ability to function with every day tasks and activities.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Symptoms of PTSD are grouped into three categories: reliving of memories, avoidance and increased arousal.
Reliving of memory symptoms include:
Avoidance symptoms include:
- Avoiding places, objects or events that serve as reminders of the experience
- Loss of interest to activities that were once pleasurable
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Difficulty remembering the details of the event or experience
- Isolation from family and friends
Increased arousal symptoms include:
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Struggles with relationships
- Emotional outbursts
- Becoming easily startled
- Loss of focus
- Physical symptoms such as increased blood pressure, nausea, diarrhea, muscle tension and rapid heart rate
Children can experience the same symptoms as adults, but may also display other symptoms such as bedwetting, separation anxiety and delayed development of motor skills and language.
Who is at risk for PTSD?
PTSD can affect children, adolescents and adults. Women are more susceptible to develop PTSD than men. Risk factors for PTSD include injury, loss of a loved one or job, witnessing someone being injured or killed, having a history of mental illness and feeing horror or trauma from a serious event.
Patients who have been victims of sexual or physical abuse, assault, accidents or natural disasters can suffer PTSD. War veterans and individuals who have either experienced or witnessed a dangerous event, or suffered the loss of a loved one can also suffer from PTSD.
How is PTSD diagnosed?
PTSD is not diagnosed until at least one month has passed after the traumatic event took place. Diagnosis will begin with a complete medical and physical exam to first rule out any other medical condition that could be causing symptoms. A referral to a mental health provider will be made to assess symptoms and determine if they fall in alignment with the symptoms of PTSD and criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Special assessment tools and a full interview are used to help make a diagnosis.
Patients will be asked to describe the severity and duration of their symptoms. Mental health providers will ask if any traumatic events took place that exposed one to danger, horror or distress. In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms should occur for more than one month and fall under the categories of re-experiencing, avoidance and increased arousal.
How is PTSD treated?
PTSD can be treated with medication and/ or psychotherapy. For some, both methods will be used to help reduce symptoms. Treatment plans are tailored to the individual needs of the patient and the specifics involved with the trauma endured. Some people find it helpful to have family or friends as part of the treatment program for moral support.
The medications used to help treat PTSD include:
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Prazosin, an alpha-blocker
The different forms of psychotherapy used to help treat PTSD include:
- Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying the thought patterns creating negative feelings, perceptions and symptoms. It also helps the patient to look at what occurred in a realistic way and make sense of any painful memories.
- Exposure therapy, a form of behavioral therapy, allows for a safe approach to face and conquer the fears associated with the trauma that occurred and develop effective coping strategies. It may also encourage a person to re-enter the setting of his or her trauma in a “virtual reality” method.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is often used in combination with exposure therapy. It uses a series of guided eye movements to process the traumatic event that occurred.
- Stress inoculation training helps to teach the patient ways to reduce anxiety.
For many, the road to recovery may be long. It may take years to overcome suppressed emotions and memories that haunt patients with fear, anxiety or sadness. Fortunately, with proper treatment and support, people can learn to overcome PTSD and live productive and full lives.