Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
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What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, sexual abuse, serious accidents, such as a car wreck, natural or human-caused disasters, or military combat. When in danger, it's natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This "fight-or-flight" response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in PTSD, this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they're no longer in danger.
How does PTSD develop?
Most people who go through a traumatic event have some symptoms at the beginning. Yet only some will develop PTSD. It isn't clear why some people develop PTSD and others don't. How likely you are to get PTSD depends on many things. These include:
- How intense the trauma was or how long it lasted
- If you lost someone you were close to or were hurt
- How close you were to the event
- How strong your reaction was
- How much you felt in control of events
- How much help and support you got after the event
- Many people who develop PTSD get better at some time. But about 1 out of 3 people with PTSD may continue to have some symptoms. Even if you continue to have symptoms, treatment can help you cope. Your symptoms don't have to interfere with your everyday activities, work, and relationships.
Signs & Symptoms
People with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to. They may experience sleep problems, feel detached or numb, or be easily startled.
PTSD can cause many symptoms. These symptoms can be grouped into three categories:
1. Re-experiencing symptoms:
Flashbacks-reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person's everyday routine. They can start from the person's own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing. Triggers might include:
Hearing a car backfire, which can bring back memories of gunfire and war for a combat veteran
Seeing a car accident, which can remind a crash survivor of his or her own accident
Seeing a news report of a sexual assault, which may bring back memories of assault for a woman who was raped
2. Avoidance symptoms:
Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
Feeling emotionally numb
Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.
A person who was in an earthquake may avoid watching television shows or movies in which there are earthquakes
A person who was robbed at gunpoint while ordering at a hamburger drive-in may avoid fast-food restaurants
Some people may keep very busy or avoid seeking help. This keeps them from having to think or talk about the event.
Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine.
3. Hyperarousal symptoms:
Being easily startled
Feeling tense or "on edge"
Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.
Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic events. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.
It's natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. When the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD don't show any symptoms for weeks or months.
People with PTSD may also have other problems. These include:
- Drinking or drug problems
- Feelings of hopelessness, shame, or despair
- Employment problems
- Relationships problems including divorce and violence
- Physical symptoms
If you suspect that you or a loved one has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it's important to seek help right away. The sooner PTSD is confronted, the easier it is to overcome. If you're reluctant to seek help, keep in mind that PTSD is not a sign of weakness, and the only way to overcome it is to confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past. This process is much easier with the guidance and support of an experienced therapist or doctor.
Instead of telling others how you feel, you may keep your feelings bottled up. But talking with a therapist can help you get better. In therapy you will learn about trauma, its effects and ways to cope.
- Learn relaxation and anger control skills.
- Provides tips for better sleep, diet, and exercise habits.
- Helps people identify and deal with guilt, shame, and other feelings about the event.
- Focus on changing how people react to their PTSD symptoms. For example, therapy helps people visit places and people that are reminders of the trauma.
- Helps people understand how certain thoughts about your trauma cause you stress and make your symptoms worse.