1. What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Feeling fear is natural. When sensing danger, fear automatically triggers physical changes that prepare our bodies to defend or flee. This “fight-or-flight” response is healthy and adaptive. With PTSD, however, these automatic responses have been sensitized by past trauma so the fight-or-flight reaction is triggered even when danger is no longer present.
Many factors are related to the cause of PTSD. Currently, scientists are studying brain areas and genes that play a role in creating fear memories, memories created to help us avoid danger (for example, remembering not to touch a hot stove). Individual differences in these genes or brain areas may set the stage for PTSD, without actually causing symptoms. Environmental factors, such as childhood trauma, head injury, or a history of mental illness, may further increase a person’s risk by affecting the early growth of the brain. Also, personality and cognitive factors, such as optimism and the tendency to view challenges in a positive or negative way, as well as social factors, such as the availability and use of social support, appear to influence how people adjust to trauma.
3. Signs & Symptoms
PTSD symptoms are grouped into three categories: a) Re-experiencing symptoms (flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts); b) Avoidance symptoms (avoiding places that remind them of the experience, lack of interest in activities, feeling emotionally numb); c) Hyperarousal symptoms (difficulties sleeping, feeling tense or “on edge”).
It is natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder (ASD). 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.
4. Who is at Risk?
Anyone is at risk for PTSD at any age. This includes war veterans and survivors of physical and sexual assault, abuse victims, and anyone who has suffered an accident, disaster, or other serious event. Some people develop PTSD after a friend or family member experiences danger or is harmed. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one can also cause 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. Some people recover within 6 months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic. PTSD symptoms make it hard to go about daily life, to go to school or work, to be with friends, and to attend to important tasks. Depression, substance abuse, or one or more of the other anxiety disorders often accompanies PTSD.
The main treatments for people with PTSD are psychotherapy, medications, or both. Everyone is different, so a treatment that works for one person may not work for another. Psychotherapy can occur one-on-one or in a group. Talk therapy treatment for PTSD usually lasts 6 to 12 weeks, but can take more time. Research shows that support from family and friends can be an important part of therapy.
7. Living with PTSD
Living with PTSD can be debilitating and draining. It is important to seek help, but with support, symptoms can be effectively addressed. Learning new skills and working through past traumatic experience can become an avenue for personal growth.