Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

A cropped shot of a caring mother consoling her adult son.

Any traumatic experience that includes the threat of danger can affect a person’s psyche, and those effects can linger. When they begin to cause significant impairment, the person may be dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental condition triggered by the experience or the threat of terrifying situations like death, major injury, or sexual violation. It often affects people at the center of these horrible events, but can also occur in those who have witnessed something horrifying or simply learned of such an event happening to their loved ones.

Recognizing the symptoms of PTSD

PTSD is a complicated condition. While it is often associated with soldiers returning from combat, anyone can develop PTSD. Experiences as diverse as rape, child abuse, car accidents, natural disasters, fires, robberies, and terrorist attacks may lead to PTSD. The Mayo Clinic divides the symptoms of PTSD into four main categories:

1. Intrusive memories

This includes reliving a terrible event or living with ongoing fear after an event has passed. This distress can be triggered by something that reminds someone of the traumatic event, but it can also occur randomly. Intrusive memories include flashbacks, episodes where a person is disconnected from the present and re-experiencing a previous trauma.

2. Avoidance

Avoidance is exactly how it sounds: someone who has experienced a traumatic event avoids speaking about the event, dealing with the event, or experiencing anything that may trigger memories of the event. Avoidance may significantly impair a sufferer’s life because it allows negative feeling to build up. For instance, a person with PTSD due to a car accident may not be able to ride in cars, keeping him or her from engaging in basic life activities.

3. Negative changes in thinking and mood

Feeling numb or detached, lacking interest in things a person once enjoyed, difficulty managing relationships, feeling poorly about one’s self — all of these are negative changes a person with PTSD may experience. These changes can be so significant that they alter an individual’s personality and change the nature of his or her close relationships.

4. Changes in emotional reaction

Ranging from minor to extreme, changes in mood may make someone easily startled, constantly depressed, or even outwardly violent. A sufferer may also begin to experience many new, negative emotions like guilt, shame, and guardedness. Left untreated, these changes can grow into self-destructive behavior.

Symptoms from PTSD can be extremely disruptive. PTSD can affect a person’s ability to care for a family or maintain a job. It can also lead to other mental conditions like depression, substance abuse, or suicidal thoughts.

A diagnosis of PTSD is one first step toward getting treatment

A person may experience PTSD for a short period of time, or the condition may be chronic. This is why it is important for a sufferer to get diagnosed by a professional in order to get the proper care. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, to be diagnosed with PTSD a person must have:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom, like an intrusive memory or flashback
  • At least two hyperarousal symptoms, like negative changes in mood or emotional reaction
  • At least three avoidance symptoms

If you or a loved one experience symptoms of PTSD, take the time to learn about treatment options.

Treatment of PTSD

Treating an individual for PTSD depends largely on the affected person. Family or group therapy, exposure therapy (ET), and medications may be options. For veterans with PTSD, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) recommends cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy helps a person with PTSD examine the thoughts that cause distress or discomfort and then work to replace those thoughts. Cognitive therapy also helps people move past blaming themselves for a negative event, which can contribute to the healing process.

For a detailed list of treatments that are available to veterans, you can download a treatment summary from the VA.

Seeking help in an emergency

If you believe that you or someone you love has PTSD, reach out to a professional for assistance. Treatment for PTSD is evolving as more and more soldiers return home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is more research than ever before into treatment options that can bring you or your loved one some relief. It is important to keep in mind that traumatic events come in any number of packages and every person handles trauma differently. Likewise, there are different treatments available for people with different dispositions.

Pay close attention if you believe someone you love may be suffering from PTSD; some studies have linked the condition to suicidal thoughts. The VA points out some treatment success in using prolonged ET or Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) in reducing suicidal ideation in patients with PTSD.

If you are concerned that a loved one has had suicidal thoughts because of PTSD, reach out for help immediately. You can always call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).