What Is PTSD?
PTSD used to be thought of as a combat veteran disorder, but as more research is being done on this debilitating condition, experts are now discovering just how common it is for anyone to experience the long-term effects from being involved in or witnessing a traumatic event.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, about 7-8% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Additionally, women experience PTSD more than men: about 10% develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with 4% men.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological disorder that results in a series of emotional and physical reactions to individuals who have either witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. Dr. James Halper, MD, says these events can include car accidents, assault, natural disaster, living in a war zone, or life-altering experiences like the death of a loved one.
Whether directly involved in an incident or as a witness, most people will experience some sort of shock, sadness, or fear after a traumatic event. While many will recover on their own, there are some who will continue to experience distress and mental health problems for months and sometimes even years.
Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD symptoms typically surface within three months of the traumatic event, but they can also appear years later. While the severity can range from mild to extreme and the symptoms may even come and go, they need to last for more than four weeks, cause you great distress, or interfere with your work or home life, to be considered PTSD.
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, the National Institute of Mental Health says an adult must exhibit all of the symptoms below for at least one month.
- At least one re-experiencing symptom – flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts, etc.
- At least one avoidance symptom – staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic event, and avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the event
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms – being easily startled, feeling tense, difficult with sleep, angry outbursts
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms – trouble remembering key features of the event, negative thoughts about oneself or the world, distorted feelings like guilt or blame, and loss of interest in enjoyable activities
Individuals struggling with PTSD may also experience symptoms related to depression or anxiety and have problems related to drugs or drinking, employment, relationships, and physical symptoms of chronic pain.
People struggling with PTSD have are often treated using a combination of two primary forms of therapy: psychotherapy and medication.
Otherwise known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy can help individuals understand their diagnosis and how it impacts their life. A therapist will also work with a patient to develop strategies that decrease the severity of the symptoms. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recommends a few specific forms of therapy for treating PTSD, the most effective being trauma-focused psychotherapy, which focuses on the memory of the traumatic event or its meaning.
Experts can employ one or both types of trauma-focused psychotherapy:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy requires individuals to learn skills that help them understand how trauma changed their thoughts and feelings
- Prolonged Exposure allows those suffering from PTSD to talk about their trauma repeatedly until the memories are no longer upsetting.
Another treatment option that has seen some success with PTSD is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of the disturbing life experiences.
Medications for PTSD
Antidepressants – specifically SSRIs and SNRIs – have been shown to work for some individuals with PTSD. Antidepressants are a group of drugs commonly prescribed for treating depression that works by increasing levels of a group of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters (primarily serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine) which are involved in regulating mood.
In addition to a professional/medical plan, individuals struggling with PTSD should be encouraged to seek out ways to manage symptoms at home. Dr. Halper says there are many evidence-based routines that individuals can practice to manage their symptoms.
One such practice is mindfulness meditation, which has been demonstrated to reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress. “Meditation involves acknowledging the anxious thought but using your breath to center you and not be controlled by those thoughts,” Dr. Halper explains.
Other ways that individuals can manage PTSD:
- Spending time with other people
- Identifying and seeking out comforting situations, places, and people
- Recognizing that it takes time to feel better
Helping Someone with PTSD
Professional care and self-care are both an important part of the PTSD therapy process. Another important part of overcoming PTSD is for those around the individual to provide support.
This can be hard to do for many people, especially those who are closest to the individual suffering from PTSD, such as a spouse, a parent, or even a child. In many cases, PTSD can cause an individual to shut down communication, avoid intimate situations and conversations, and even become distrustful.
The most important thing for those who have a loved one diagnosed with PTSD is not to give up. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers some of the following suggestions for family members and friends:
- Offer to accompany the individual on to appointments, such as doctor’s visits, for moral support as well as to help keep track of prescriptions or instructions.
- Let the individual know you are available and willing to listen, but that it’s also okay if the person does not want to talk.
- Create opportunities for the individual to be a part of activities outside the home, such as going out to dinner or a movie.
- Participate in physical activity together, such as taking a walk, riding bikes, or attending a yoga class.
- Encourage other family and friends to reach out to the individual, so that they know others care about them and that a support system exists to help them.
The one thing you should not do is give in to violent or aggressive behavior, especially if there are any children nearby. Establish boundaries with your loved one such as setting up rules for time outs when things become heated, and use techniques like taking turns to express thoughts and feelings.
Finally, it is important to understand that it takes time to overcome PTSD, and every person handles it differently. Don’t be afraid to seek support yourself as a caregiver – taking care of yourself is an important part of being able to take care of your loved one as well.
Researchers, physicians, therapists, and other experts are continually evaluating ways to bring more awareness to individuals suffering from PTSD. Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to anyone seeking help. That’s why Dr. Halper says educating the communities that are at-risk for PTSD and normalizing the diagnosis are so important.
There are ongoing studies looking at how PTSD develops, as well as the most effective ways to treat it. As technology progresses, scientists are hopeful they will be able to pinpoint when and where in the brain PTSD begins. The National Institute of Mental Health is hopeful that this understanding may then lead to better targeted treatments to suit each person’s own needs or even prevent the disorder before it causes harm.
Additionally, there are ongoing clinical trials individuals can participate in that seek to gather information about new ways to prevent, detect, or treat PTSD. These clinical trials take place at various hospitals, universities, and clinics all over the country.