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Between a quarter and a third or people who experience a very traumatic life event will suffer a syndrome of anxiety symptoms in the weeks, months or even years following the event. PTSD is not a sign of weakness; it is a very treatable mental health disorder.

If you endured a terrible life experience and you can’t seem to get past it and you may have PTSD.

What Kinds of Traumatic Experiences Can Cause PTSD?

While many of us associate PTSD with war, as something experienced by combat veterans, combat exposure is only one of many types of experiences that can lead to the disorder.

Any situation that puts you in fear for your life or in fear of great bodily harm, or a situation where you see others being harmed or killed, can cause PTSD. Some examples of these types of situations include:

  • Military combat
  • A traffic accident
  • A mugging
  • A violent assault
  • A rape
  • A major disaster, such as a hurricane
  • A terrorist attack

The kinds of situations more likely to cause the disorder:

  • Are long lasting
  • Are very horrific
  • Leave you feeling trapped
  • Leave you seriously injured
  • Affect kids
  • Kill or seriously injure many people
  • Are very unexpected

When Do Symptoms Emerge After a Traumatic Experience?

On average, symptoms of PTSD emerge within a couple of weeks or months and usually within 6 months, but in some cases, PTSD lays dormant for years. It’s quite normal to feel stressed and upset after experiencing a trauma, but if distress lasts for longer than a couple of weeks or if symptoms of distress are very severe, symptoms may indicate PTSD. PTSD may not go away without treatment.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD causes 3 types of symptoms: Hyper arousal anxiety symptoms, symptoms of avoidance and symptoms of intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts or memories.

Hyper arousal (anxiety) symptoms

Like a state of constant vigilance to threat, hyper arousal puts you on constant alert, a state your body is not very well able to tolerate. Some symptoms of hyper arousal include:

  • Irritability
  • Being very easily startled
  • insomnia
  • Stomach upset or aches and pains
  • Using drugs or alcohol to cope
  • Hallucinations (auditory)

Avoidance Symptoms

Avoidance is also known as emotional numbing, and is a defense mechanism used to manage the fear and worry produced by the incident.

  • Avoiding places, people or things that remind you of the incident
  • Closing yourself emotionally
  • Feeling numb
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Having difficulty concentrating and remembering things
  • Feeling guilty
  • Losing the ability to completely recall the traumatic experience

Uncontrollable Thought Symptoms

  • Uncontrollably thoughts about the traumatic experience
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares

These thoughts can be triggered by something or someone in the environment (such as a car backfiring) and can be very unsettling.

To Be Diagnosed with PTSD:

According to the American Psychiatric Association, to be diagnosed with PTSD, a patient must:

  1. Have experienced symptoms for at least 1 consecutive month and symptoms must interfere with regular life.
  1. Symptoms must include at least 1 intrusive thought (re-experience) symptom, at least 3 avoidance symptoms and at least 2 hyper arousal symptoms.

When to Seek Help?

It’s quite normal to feel stressed and upset after experiencing a trauma, but if distress lasts for longer than a couple of weeks or if symptoms of distress are very severe, or if your symptoms are interfering with your ability to live a normal happy and healthy life – you may have PTSD - a treatable mental health disorder.

PTSD is very treatable, but the earlier treatment is initiated, the better the prognosis and the faster you’ll get back to feeling like yourself again. If you think you have PTSD, it’s worth seeking an evaluation from a mental health professional.

Who Is at Risk for PTSD?

About a third of people who experience a major traumatic event will develop PTSD. Scientists don’t know exactly why some people develop the condition and some people don’t, but people thought to be at increased risk of PTSD include:

  • People who lack social support systems
  • People who have a close relative that has had either PTSD or depression
  • People that have another mental health disorder
  • People who endured childhood abuse
  • People who feel badly about the way they acted during the traumatic situation
  • People who experience additional stressors after the traumatic event, such as relocation or job loss

Women are at greater risk to experience the condition; this may be because women are more frequently the victims of traumatic assault.

What Kind of Treatment Works?

PTSD symptoms may or may not go away on their own. Without treatment, in many cases, symptoms will actually worsen in time.

Fortunately, effective treatments are available that help a great deal to reduce the intensity and frequency of PTSD symptoms.

The two types of PTSD treatments are psychotherapy and medication therapy.

Education is an important aspect of any form of PTSD therapy, and patients should endeavor to learn as much as possible about the condition and the treatments available.

Psychotherapy

Some different types of psychotherapy (talk therapy) include:

Exposure therapy – which involves using imagery to recreate a traumatic situation while in a safe environment. Under a therapists’ guidance, this can reduce the power of traumatic memories.

EMDR – similar to exposure therapy, but an EMDR therapist has a patient move their eyes back and forth as they remember traumatic memories. This is thought to reduce the emotional power of the memories – a form of emotional reprocessing.

Cognitive behavioral therapy – a form of therapy that has patients develop new healthier ways to think about traumatic memories causing problems.

Medication

The SSRIs, a class of anti depressant that work primarily through modifications of serotonin levels in the brain, are FDA approved for the treatment of PTSD. Some examples of SSRIs include Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil.

Helping Yourself

Self-help should not replace the expertise and treatment of a mental health professional, but you can take some steps to improve the way you feel, and to shorten a period of PTSD symptoms.

Here are a few ideas for PTSD self help:

  • Find a support group and share and learn with a group of others going through similar experiences
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with symptoms. Intoxication can suppress symptoms temporarily, but makes things worse in the long run. Habitual drug or alcohol use also puts you at risk of a substance abuse disorder
  • Reduce or eliminate coffee. Caffeine can exacerbate anxiety symptoms
  • Get enough sleep, exercise and eat well.
  • Talk to friends and family about the way you’re feeling and about the traumatic incident – don’t try to repress it
  • Meditate, learn deep breathing exercises, or do yoga
  • Try to keep a normal routine, follow your doctor or therapist’s advice and expect that things will get better in time
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Page last updated Dec 08, 2015

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