Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious mental health disorder characterized by extreme anxiety, frightening flashbacks and nightmares, and emotional distress. PTSD sufferers may be military veterans or ordinary people who have experienced a traumatic event. Millions suffer each year, but it is very often swept under the carpet and sufferers don’t receive the treatment they need to recover and move on with their life.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a psychological reaction to a traumatic and stressful event. This could be anything from witnessing violence, being involved in military combat, being abused or assaulted, or being in an accident. You don’t necessarily need to be directly involved; even witnessing a traumatic event could trigger symptoms of PTSD.
How Common is PTSD?
Studies have revealed that around 7-8% of the US population will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lifetime. In the US, an estimated one in five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffers from PTSD. The Vietnam war was over 40-years ago, but 11% of veterans are still suffering, and for many, the nightmare gets worse as time goes on.
History of PTSD
PTSD has probably been around for millennia, but it wasn’t until soldiers began returning from the horrors of World War One that doctors started to document their symptoms. Back then, PTSD was called “shell shock”, an apt description given the harrowing conditions soldiers experienced during the Great War. However, although cases of shell shock were reported with depressing regularity over the years, particularly in the wake of the Korean War and Vietnam, PTSD was not officially recognized and included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980.
Do I Have PTSD?
Not everyone develops PTSD after a traumatic event. Some people can process trauma and move on with their lives. Others develop PTSD. At present, experts don’t know why some people are affected while others are not. It is perfectly normal to experience anxiety, nightmares, and upsetting thoughts after being involved in or witnessing a stressful situation, but if you find yourself still experiencing flashbacks, nightmares and emotional distress several weeks after the event, and your symptoms are significantly affecting your relationships and job, it is possible you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD Symptoms in Men and Women
Men and women are equally likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. PTSD symptoms in men serving in the armed forces are more common, but PTSD symptoms in women are also documented. The only difference is that fewer women serve in the armed forces.
Common PTSD Symptoms
There are many post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. You may experience some or all of them, but to be diagnosed with PTSD, the symptoms must be long-lasting, persistent, and severe. PTSD symptoms can be divided into three categories: flashbacks, emotional distress, and hyperarousal.
Flashbacks and nightmares are common. These can occur at any time, but there are often triggers. Your personal trigger could be anything from loud noises such as gunfire if you served in the armed forces or the scent of someone’s aftershave if you are a sexual assault survivor.
Re-experiencing the traumatic event is the main symptom of PTSD. For the sufferer, it is like a waking nightmare. You will relive the event, your brain will play distressing images on a continuous loop, and you will feel physical sensations such as pain and nausea. Some people suffer vivid nightmares and can’t sleep. It is common to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, but this rarely helps.
Many people with PTSD try to avoid situations or people that might trigger a flashback. Sufferers retreat behind an emotional wall and try to avoid thinking about what happened to them. They can’t talk to friends or family, so they become isolated and socially withdrawn. This is very hard for loved ones to deal with, so relationship breakdowns are common. You may lose interest in hobbies you previously enjoyed or take up something new that is so absorbing it distracts you from your traumatic thoughts.
Hypervigilance is a state of heightened anxiety. When we are exposed to extreme stress, our body goes into “fight or flight” mode. Adrenaline is a powerful stimulant. It can help us escape or live to fight another day. During episodes of hypervigilance, you are permanently on guard. You can’t relax. You are easily startled and prone to aggression and angry outbursts.
Sufferers often report they always keep their back to the wall in public places because they constantly feel under threat. You may lash out at loved ones, even though you are not a violent person. People with PTSD are more likely to attack a partner or hurt someone they love, particularly when in the grip of a vivid flashback.
Loved ones often describe the person suffering from PTSD as a stranger in their midst. The person may seem fine one minute but be prone to aggressive outbursts and violent hallucinations. Indeed, research shows that combat-related PTSD sufferers are far more likely to perpetrate aggression against their partners than ordinary Americans.
Complex PTSD occurs in people exposed to repeated trauma or in the case of a child, the stressful event happened in early childhood. It is also more common if the trauma was perpetrated by a parent or carer, for example, sexual or physical abuse.
Symptoms of complex PTSD may not appear until many years after the traumatic event. You may suffer from physical symptoms such as headaches or pain. You may dissociate for short periods or find it hard to form emotional attachments. Complex PTSD is also linked to destructive behaviors such as alcohol abuse or drug taking. Many complex PTSD sufferers have suicidal thoughts.
Treatment for PTSD
PTSD is difficult to treat as many sufferers find it hard to open up and talk about their experiences. The main treatment for PTSD is psychotherapy combined with medication such as antidepressants. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or trauma therapy lets sufferers talk through their recollections and feelings related to the event. It can help teach patients skills to deal with their anxiety and flashbacks, make sense of their guilt, and look at what happened in a non-judgmental way.
New studies involving the use of MDMA in conjunction with intensive psychotherapy have had extremely promising results. If approved by the FDA, it could save the government millions of dollars in disability payments.
Contact Bakersfield Behavioral Healthcare Hospital if you or a loved one is showing symptoms of PTSD or you would like to learn more.