Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Though it may seem like a relatively simple concept, trauma—a powerful experience that may have long-lasting effects—has not always been defined the same. Scientists continue to study experiences of trauma in hopes of finding better treatments. One particular type of trauma is known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD can affect many different people, from survivors of rape and survivors of natural disasters to military service men and women. Roughly 10 percent of women and 5 percent of men are diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetimes, and many others will experience some adverse effects from trauma at some point in their lives. According to the National institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 1 in 30 adults in the U.S. suffer from PTSD in a given year—and that risk is much higher in veterans of war.
Not all “traumatic” events meet the clinical standards for trauma. The loss of a loved one or the limitations resulting from an illness may cause trauma but the shock of such events is not in itself abnormal. PTSD includes both an event that threatens injury to self or others and a response to those events that involves persistent fear, helplessness or horror.
Recent scientific understanding shows that experiencing traumatic events can change the way our brains function. Especially with severe or repeated exposure, the brain can be affected in such a way that makes a person feel like the event is happening again and again. Repeated experience of the traumatic event can prevent healing and keep a person stuck in a pattern that may induce anxiety, sleeplessness, anger or an increased possibility of substance abuse.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Although the symptoms for individuals with PTSD can vary considerably, they generally fall into three categories:
- Re-experience - Individuals with PTSD often experience recurrent and intrusive recollections of and/or nightmares about the stressful event. Some may experience flashbacks, hallucinations, or other vivid feelings of the event happening again. Others experience great psychological or physiological distress when certain things (objects, situations, etc.) remind them of the event.
Avoidance - Many with PTSD will persistently avoid things that remind them of the traumatic event. This can result in avoiding everything from thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the incident to activities, places, or people that cause them to recall the event. In others there may be a general lack of responsiveness signaled by an inability to recall aspects of the trauma, a decreased interest in formerly important activities, a feeling of detachment from others, a limited range of emotion, and/or feelings of hopelessness about the future.
Increased arousal - Symptoms in this area may include difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, becoming very alert or watchful, and/or jumpiness or being easily startled.
It is important to note that those with PTSD often use alcohol or other drugs in an attempt to self-medicate. Individuals with this disorder may also be at an increased risk for suicide.
How is PTSD treated?
There are a variety of treatments for PTSD, and individuals respond to treatments differently. PTSD often can be treated effectively with psychotherapy or medication or both.
Behavior therapy focuses on learning relaxation and coping techniques. This therapy often increases the patient's exposure to a feared situation as a way of making him or her gradually less sensitive to it.
Cognitive therapy is therapy that helps people with PTSD take a close look at their thought patterns and learn to do less negative and nonproductive thinking. Group therapy helps for many people with PTSD by having them get to know others who have had similar situations and learning that their fears and feelings are not uncommon.
Medication is often used along with psychotherapy. Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications may help lessen symptoms of PTSD such as sleep problems (insomnia or nightmares), depression, and edginess.
Read about Treatments and Supports for Mental Illness