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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
June 15, 2021
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that results from a majorly impactful, negative event. This event may be experienced firsthand or it may have been witnessed. It often leads to prolonged periods of anxiety, depression, and other intense distress that can affect someone for years without proper treatment.
While PTSD is often tied to one specific traumatic event, someone with the disorder might have also experienced multiple traumatic events, either of the same nature or unrelated.
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In most cases, when someone experiences trauma, they need plenty of time after to process, cope, and adjust, but most will feel much better after having a chance to recover. For people with post-traumatic stress disorder, though, this period of intensity after the trauma may last months or years, which can put intense strain on them. Proper diagnosis and PTSD treatment are essential to helping those experiencing it live happy, fulfilling lives.
Depending on what trauma a person has experienced, as well as other unique contributing factors, trauma responses can look different from person to person. Some people may directly experience several traumatic events in their lifetime and never develop PTSD symptoms, while others may develop it after witnessing something bad happen to someone else. It’s also common for people to experience PTSD symptoms well after a traumatic event. In some cases, the disorder may not have a visible effect on someone until years later.
PTSD symptoms are categorized in four ways:
1. Intrusive thoughts or “re-experiencing”
Intrusion refers to persistent thoughts and memories a person may experience following a traumatic event. These may present as intense, vivid flashbacks, nightmares, or other reminders of the event.
Avoidance refers to a change someone makes in their behavior, whether consciously or not, to avoid reminders of the event. This may include something specific, like avoiding the people, places, or objects that may have been involved, or something more general, like avoiding a movie that reminds them of a person who was involved. Avoidance can also extend to avoiding talking or thinking about anything related to the event.
3. Changes in mood and/or thought
This symptom involves any negative shifts in someone’s mental state. Examples of this include feelings of hopelessness, difficulty remembering things, loss of interest in activities, feelings of guilt or shame, high levels of fear or anxiety, emotional distance from loved ones, and more.
4. Changes physical and/or emotional reactivity
This symptom focuses on the specific physical and emotional reactions a person may have after the trauma. In this category, people may experience increased tension in their body, trouble falling or staying asleep, reckless or self-destructive behavior, strong emotional outbursts, and more.
Those with post-traumatic stress disorder experience multiple symptoms across each category for an extended period of time. While many people experience some of these symptoms after a traumatic event, most will see these symptoms greatly reduce or completely resolve after a month or two. However, those with the disorder will have a much harder time improving their trauma responses on their own. If you’re experiencing some or many of these, more than a month after a traumatic event, or if you’re having any thoughts relating to self-harm, talk to your doctor as soon as possible about finding the best treatment for you.
- More than 3% of adults in the U.S. have experienced PTSD in the past year.
- An estimated 6.8% of people will experience the disorder in their lifetimes.
- Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men.
- In one study, natural disaster and accident-related traumas had the highest prevalence of PTSD development at over 25%.
- Combat exposure for military veterans is one of the factors most correlated with PTSD, with an estimated PTSD prevalence of 23% for those in recent U.S. wars.
Risk factors and causes
While experiencing trauma is the main contributing factor to developing PTSD, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop the disorder. In fact, most will not. Specific factors can contribute to the likelihood of someone developing post-traumatic stress disorder, including:
- Experiencing multiple traumatic and/or dangerous events
- Experiencing trauma at a very young age
- Being physically hurt in the event or watching someone else get hurt
- Having a personal or family history of other mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or substance use
- Lacking a healthy support system after the event
- Working in an intense, dangerous job that may expose them to traumatic events, such as emergency responders
However, some factors can also help prevent the development of PTSD after an event, including:
- Support groups, either professionally organized or with family and friends
- Developing healthy, personal coping strategies to deal with the fear
- Learning a skill that may increase their confidence in their own abilities, like learning self-defense after being robbed
- Seeking individual help, like counseling, quickly to process and cope effectively
Trauma doesn’t have to lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. If you’ve experienced a traumatic incident, talk to a mental health professional about what you can do to stay healthy. If you are exhibiting painful symptoms, reach out to learn more about a potential diagnosis and helpful PTSD treatment so you can live a happier, healthier life.
PTSD Treatment is very dependent on the individual’s unique circumstances. Someone who is being more negatively affected day-to-day, is exhibiting dangerous behavior, or is having thoughts of self-harm will need more immediate, intensive care than someone with less severe symptoms. However, care generally involves a combination of therapy and medication.
Therapy sessions for PTSD treatment may include more common techniques like behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, or “talk therapy”, and more specific techniques like exposure therapy. By talking through issues they’re experiencing and working with a professional to come up with unique ways to approach and address the root trauma, someone with the disorder can see an incredible improvement in their symptoms and quality of life.
In cases where behavioral therapy or psychotherapy alone does not make a large enough improvement on someone’s life, medication can be prescribed to help manage symptoms. For post-traumatic stress disorder, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications are typically prescribed. This is often dependent on a person’s history with specific medications.
While the disorder can be terrifying to experience, it is treatable with professional help and time. Talk to your doctor about what approach may work best for you and your lifestyle. They can help ensure that your unique care is most effective at resolving your symptoms and improving your quality of life.
PTSD and substance use
Unfortunately, many people with PTSD, especially those who haven’t been treated, develop alcoholism or drug addictions, also known as alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, respectively. Some studies show that people with PTSD are 14 times more likely to develop a substance use disorder (SUD) than those without the disorder.
The burden that post-traumatic stress disorder can place on someone’s life is enormous and without the proper professional education about coping strategies, many people will look for their own, whether intentionally or not. The strong correlation between PTSD and co-occurring substance use disorders shines a light on the importance of early treatment for trauma. Those with a dual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and SUD need proper care that treats both issues at the same time to effectively recover from both.
If you or a loved one have experienced trauma and may be using alcohol, opioids, or other substances to cope, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional about your treatment options. The earlier you find treatment, the more likely you are to prevent a co-occurring disorder, like SUDs, and the sooner you’re able to feel better.
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