Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that was originally discovered in war veterans. In the past, PTSD symptoms were labeled “shell shock” and, over time, a variety of other increasingly euphemistic labels such as “combat fatigue”. We now know that PTSD is a disorder that can affect people everywhere and it is not a direct consequence of experiencing combat specifically, but any kind of serious trauma can trigger it. War veterans continue to have much higher rates of PTSD than the general population, however.
The first study that looked at post-traumatic stress disorder and war veterans discovered that between a quarter and a third of Vietnam War veterans had PTSD at some point during their life after serving in the war. The Vietnam War seems to have the highest rates of PTSD, but almost a quarter of those who served in the Persian Gulf War qualified for a PTSD diagnosis, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a PTSD rate of greater than ten percent so far.
Other common causes of PTSD, besides experiencing combat, include being a victim of domestic abuse, being physically, sexually or emotionally assaulted or abused, surviving a kidnapping, surviving a natural disaster or accident or losing a loved one unexpectedly. Anyone who undergoes a traumatic experience that is extremely stressful and painful to them– or many of these experiences over time, as is the case in war or ongoing domestic abuse– may be at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fortunately, most people who undergo traumatic experiences do not develop post-traumatic stress disorder. All traumatic and stressful situations are emotionally taxing, and it is perfectly normal to have a reaction to them. Common reactions are feeling lost, feeling disconnected from the rest of the world and feeling numb. These are indeed some of the symptoms of PTSD, but just experiencing some of the symptoms doesn’t mean that you have PTSD. In people who are grieving or reacting to a traumatic event, these symptoms normally last from a period of time ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Generally, people who have a support system can start to feel better and function again in society, even if thinking about their experience still causes them great pain. People with post-traumatic stress disorder never recover from the shock of a traumatic experience and they suffer from symptoms for a long time after the experience. It may be very difficult to tell whether your response to a traumatic experience is normal until you have been suffering from symptoms for a long time. Symptoms must be present for at least a month (30 days) to receive a diagnosis of PTSD.
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are classified into three categories: re-experiencing the event(s), avoidance and anxiety/emotional arousal. Each of these categories has symptoms that are commonly experienced by people with PTSD. Ways that a person with PTSD can re-experience a traumatic event include having intense nightmares, having memories of the traumatic event that intrude at unwanted times, having flashbacks of the event and having an intense physical response when reminded of the ordeal, as if it were happening again. Avoidance symptoms include depression-like loss of interest in hobbies and obligations, feelings of numbness and detachment, amnesia surrounding parts of the traumatic event, avoiding places and activities that bring back memories of the traumatic experience(s) and feeling like the future is limited. A person with PTSD also has anxiety symptoms, such as sleeping problems, irritability, jumpiness, hypervigilance or feelings of persecution and difficulty concentrating.
There are a few symptoms common in sufferers of PTSD that do not fall into the three categories. These include guilt, self-blame for the traumatic event, suicidal thoughts, physical pain, including muscle aches and headaches, and increased substance abuse. Children and young teenagers with PTSD may be fearful that their caregivers will abandon them, lose skills that they used to have, experience anxiety symptoms and show compulsive behaviors.
Treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder include medication, therapy and support groups. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of antidepressant medication, have been shown to be effective in treating PTSD. Other types of anti-anxiety medications may also be helpful for PTSD symptoms. People experiencing sleep problems because of PTSD may be prescribed sleep aid medication. Those who are abusing alcohol or other drugs may be admitted to a rehabilitation program as a part of their treatment. Types of therapy that can be used to help those with PTSD include cognitive behavioral therapy, desensitization therapy and group therapy. Some people with PTSD find it helpful to reconnect with people by joining a support group for PTSD, as it makes them feel less alone.
Family members of those with PTSD may also benefit from attending therapy sessions, as it can help them understand what their family member with PTSD is going through. It can be difficult, as a family member of someone with PTSD, to deal with the emotional pain of your loved one. It is also easy to blame the person for outbursts of anxiety that manifest as irritability and defensiveness towards others. Communication is important in relationships, but a person with PTSD may withdraw if you try to force them to talk about their traumatic experiences when they feel like they cannot. In contrast, some people with PTSD may need to talk about the event with someone frequently as they are trying to understand it. When dealing with a loved one with PTSD, it is important to be patient and make sure that they get help.