Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened. PTSD is a lasting consequence of traumatic ordeals that cause intense fear, helplessness, or horror, such as a sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one, an accident, war, or natural disaster. Families of
victims can also develop PTSD, as can emergency personnel and rescue workers.
Most people having experienced a traumatizing event will not develop PTSD. Women are more likely to experience higher impact events, and are also more likely to develop PTSD than men. Children are less likely to experience PTSD after trauma than adults, especially if they are under ten years of age.
Virtually any trauma, defined as an event that is life-threatening or that severely compromises the physical or emotional well-being of an individual or causes intense fear, may cause PTSD. Such events often include either experiencing or witnessing a severe accident or physical injury, receiving a life-threatening medical diagnosis, being the victim of kidnapping or torture, exposure to war combat or to a natural disaster, exposure to other disaster for example, plane crash or terrorist attack, being the victim of rape, mugging, robbery, or assault, enduring physical, sexual, emotional, or other forms of abuse, as well as involvement in civil conflict. Although the diagnosis of PTSD currently requires that the sufferer has a history of experiencing a traumatic event as defined here, people may develop PTSD in reaction to events that may not qualify as traumatic but can be devastating life events like divorce or unemployment.
Symptoms of PTSD most often begin within three months of the event. In some cases, however, they do not begin until years later. The severity and duration of the illness vary. Some people recover within six months, while others suffer much longer.
Symptoms of PTSD often are grouped into three main categories, including:
- Reliving: People with PTSD repeatedly relive the ordeal through thoughts and memories of the trauma. These may include flashbacks, hallucinations, and nightmares. They also may feel great distress when certain things remind them of the trauma, such as the anniversary date of the event.
- Avoiding: The person may avoid people, places, thoughts, or situations that may remind him or her of the trauma. This can lead to feelings of detachment and isolation from family and friends, as well as a loss of interest in activities that the person once enjoyed.
- Increased arousal: These include excessive emotions; problems relating to others, including feeling or showing affection; difficulty falling or staying asleep; irritability; outbursts of anger; difficulty concentrating; and being “jumpy” or easily startled. The person may also suffer physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, nausea, and diarrhea.
Young children with PTSD may suffer from delayed development in areas such as toilet training, motor skills, and language.
Not every traumatized person develops full-blown or even minor PTSD. Symptoms usually begin within 3 months of the incident but occasionally emerge years afterward. They must last more than a month to be considered PTSD. The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic.
A doctor who has experience helping people with mental illnesses, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, can diagnose PTSD. The diagnosis is made after the doctor talks with the person who has symptoms of PTSD.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have all of the following for at least 1 month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom
- At least three avoidance symptoms
- At least two hyperarousal symptoms
- Symptoms that make it hard to go about daily life, go to school or work, be with friends, and take care of important tasks.
PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or one or more of the other anxiety disorders.
Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment can help you regain a sense of control over your life. The primary treatment is psychotherapy, but often includes medication. Combining these treatments can help improve your symptoms, teach you skills to address your symptoms, help you feel better about yourself and learn ways to cope if any symptoms arise again.
Psychotherapy and medications can also help you if you’ve developed other problems related to your traumatic experience, such as depression, anxiety, or misuse of alcohol or drugs. You don’t have to try to handle the burden of PTSD on your own.
Several types of psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, may be used to treat children and adults with PTSD. Some types of psychotherapy used in PTSD treatment include:
- Cognitive therapy. This type of talk therapy helps you recognize the ways of thinking (cognitive patterns) that are keeping you stuck — for example, negative or inaccurate ways of perceiving normal situations. For PTSD, cognitive therapy often is used along with exposure therapy.
- Exposure therapy. This behavioral therapy helps you safely face what you find frightening so that you can learn to cope with it effectively. One approach to exposure therapy uses “virtual reality” programs that allow you to re-enter the setting in which you experienced trauma.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories and change how you react to traumatic memories.
All these approaches can help you gain control of lasting fear after a traumatic event. You and your health care professional can discuss what type of therapy or combination of therapies may best meet your needs.
You may try individual therapy, group therapy or both. Group therapy can offer a way to connect with others going through similar experiences.
Several types of medications can help improve symptoms of PTSD:
- Antidepressants. These medications can help symptoms of depression and anxiety. They can also help improve sleep problems and concentration. The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for PTSD treatment.
- Anti-anxiety medications. These drugs also can improve feelings of anxiety and stress for a short time to relieve severe anxiety and related problems. Because these medications have the potential for abuse, they are not usually taken long term.
- Prazosin. If symptoms include insomnia or recurrent nightmares, a drug called prazosin (Minipress) may help. Although not specifically FDA-approved for PTSD treatment, prazosin may reduce or suppress nightmares in many people with PTSD.
You and your doctor can work together to figure out the best treatment, with the fewest side effects, for your symptoms and situation. You may see an improvement in your mood and other symptoms within a few weeks.
Tell your health care professional about any side effects or problems with medications. You may need to try more than one or a combination of medications, or your doctor may need to adjust your dosage or medication schedule before finding the right fit for you.
Helping a loved one with PTSD
- Be patient and understanding. Getting better takes time, even when a person is committed to treatment for PTSD. Be patient with the pace of recovery and offer a sympathetic ear. A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so avoid the temptation to tell your loved one to stop rehashing the past and move on.
- Try to anticipate and prepare for PTSD triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the trauma; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to offer your support and help your loved one calm down.
- Don’t take the symptoms of PTSD personally. Common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include emotional numbness, anger, and withdrawal. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, or closed off, remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.
- Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. It is very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their traumatic experiences. For some, it can even make things worse. Never try to force your loved one to open up. Let the person know, however, that you’re there when and if he or she wants to talk.