Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental and physical response to an event that threatens a person’s safety or puts him or her in grave danger. PTSD can follow exposure to events such as war, natural disaster, rape, a car accident or physical, mental or sexual abuse. Even events in which people are not directly affected can trigger PTSD, such as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Washington-area sniper attacks or a school shooting.

What Causes PTSD?

Research indicates that there are many reasons a person develops PTSD and the symptoms associated with the disorder.

Exposure to a traumatic event can alter fundamental brain mechanisms. In PTSD sufferers, abnormalities have been detected in the areas of the brain that mediate coping behavior, learning and memory.

One of the body’s normal physical responses to danger or intense stress is the production of high levels of adrenaline and natural opiates. Scientists have found that people with PTSD continue to produce the higher levels of those hormones, even after the event has passed. This has both physical and mental effects. High levels of opiates, which mask pain, may lead to blunted emotions. High levels of adrenaline may lead to increased blood pressure, anxiousness and an inability to sleep.

Researchers are still unsure why some who experience trauma develop PTSD and others do not. It is thought that there are factors that lead to a person’s susceptibility. These include the type of event experienced and the amount of support from family members and friends after the event.

What are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder typically present within 3 months of a traumatic event, although they occasionally do not begin until years later. Some research shows that the duration of the symptoms depends, in part, on how long the trauma lasted. Symptoms of the illness include:

  • Re-experiencing – Many sufferers of PTSD will be plagued by memories of the event. These memories have often been likened to video clips being played over and over again. The memories can be so real that sufferers may feel they are repeatedly reliving the event. The memories can also be played out in nightmares.
  • Emotional Numbing – Some PTSD sufferers describe themselves as emotionally dead. Emotional reactions can be flat, with the person experiencing little joy or sadness.
  • Avoidance – Many people will try to avoid activities or situations that could remind them of the traumatic event. They might avoid people who were involved. Sometimes they will even avoid being in public, because everyday experiences are reminders. For example, a car backfiring may sound like gunfire.
  • Isolation – Because people who suffer from PTSD might feel as though nobody else could possibly understand their experiences, they become isolated from others.
  • Anxiety – People with PTSD might be easily startled or feel frightened for no particular reason. They may be unable to relax because they are constantly on guard against the cause of the event.
  • Guilt – The survivors of a traumatic event might experience guilt over why others perished and they did not or over why others were so much more affected by the event.
  • Sleeplessness – Sleep may not come for a variety of reasons. These may include an inability to relax or persistent nightmares.
  • Medical Problems – Often PTSD can lead to many medical problems. Having the disorder puts a person at a greater risk of high blood pressure, asthma and ulcers. Often, a doctor will see a patient many times for these physical problems, without knowledge of the traumatic event. It is important for doctors to ask their patients if they have recently experienced an event during which they felt seriously threatened.

What are the Treatments for PTSD?

PTSD is treated with psychotherapy, drug therapy or both.

Mental health professionals will use different kinds of psychotherapy to deal with the traumatic event. Therapy focuses on helping the individual reduce the excessive emotional responses and helps promote normal adaptation to the traumatic events. Professionals may use group therapy to treat PTSD. Group therapy encourages the support of others who have had similar experiences. Evidence shows that PTSD sufferers are more receptive to advice and support from people who have experienced trauma similar to their own.

It is important to note that there is no “anti-PTSD drug.” Instead, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications are most prevalently prescribed to deal with the symptoms that go along with PTSD.

How Common is PTSD?

Researchers estimate that almost 40% of people in the United States have had experiences that could be considered traumatic. As many as 23% of people who have survived a traumatic experience develop PTSD at some point after that event. It is important to note that PTSD can develop at any age, including childhood.

Additional Resources:

National Center for PTSD
PTSD Alliance
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
Recovery Network of Northern Kentucky

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