We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in terms of veterans who are afflicted. However, anyone who has suffered a horrifying event may experience PTSD. It is especially common among those who have served in combat, but it can also develop in people who have experienced rape, childhood neglect and physical abuse, sexual abuse, or being physically attacked or threatened. Cases have also been reported with people who have been through car accidents, plane crashes or natural disasters such as fires and hurricanes. Essentially, any terrifying experience can trigger PTSD.
What is PTSD?
Most people who go through a traumatic event have difficulty copying for awhile. They may experience nightmares, anxiety, or spells of uncontrollable crying, but usually, with time, rest and support from loved ones, they get better. However, in some cases, the symptoms of trauma get worse. In addition to nightmares, the victims experience flashbacks, severe anxiety, and cannot stop thinking about the event. In the worst cases, those traumatized are no longer able to function normally and have difficulty holding a job, maintaining relationships, and just getting through the day.
What are the symptoms?
PTSD symptoms are usually grouped into three types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyperarousal). Those suffering from intrusive memories may relive the event for minutes or days at a time, and also have disturbing dreams. Those who have become emotionally numb avoid talking about what happened to them; they no longer enjoy activities that once gave them pleasure; they feel hopeless about the future, and have trouble with concentration and memory lapses. Relationships are difficult to maintain. The third group, those with hyperarousal and anxiety, easily become irritable or angered, and often indulge in self-destructive behavior, such as drinking or drugs. They have trouble sleeping and are easily startled or frightened. They may see or hear things that are not there. This group also often feels overwhelming guilt or shame about the event–either about being victimized or surviving.
When do symptoms appear?
PTSD symptoms usually appear within three months of a traumatic event, but sometimes, they can take years to manifest themselves. PTSD symptoms can also come and go. If life is on an even keel, symptoms may retreat, but if things become stressful, they may reappear. Another traumatic event, like loss of a loved one, can also act as a trigger. Sometimes, seemingly harmless incidents can act as triggers, such as a car backfiring or fireworks causing combat vets to flashback.
When should you get help?
If symptoms of sadness, fear, lack of sleep, lack of concentration or mood swings continue for more than a month after experiencing a traumatic event, these could be signs of PTSD, and seeing a mental health provider is recommended. The earlier you start treatment for
PTSD, the better your chances of preventing symptoms from becoming worse, and starting your recovery.
PTSD can place you at risk for developing other mental health issues, such as depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and eating disorders. PTSD can also make you more prone to suicidal thoughts.
If you feel like you want to harm yourself or others at any point since the event, then you should seek emergency medical help immediately.
How is PTSD treated?
PTSD is usually treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Medications can help alleviate symptoms of PTSD while therapy can teach patients skills for coping with what they experienced. Among the medications used are antipsychotics which can help relieve anxiety, difficulty sleeping and mood swings.
Antidepressants can help ease depression and anxiety, and also help you sleep better and improve concentration. Zoloft and Paxil are two that are frequently prescribed. Anti-anxiety medications may also be used to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.
Patients suffering from repeated nightmares may also be prescribed Prazosin which can help suppress bad dreams.
Whatever medication, or combination of medications are used, patients frequently see improvement in mood and other symptoms within a few weeks.
In addition to traditional cognitive therapy, where you talk about what happened, PTSD patients today may also be helped by Exposure Therapy, which helps them safely face the very thing that traumatized them. Sometimes virtual reality programs are used to help them safely relive the experience and put the trauma to rest. This therapy has proven very effective with veterans of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.
Other helpful tips:
You can also help control PTSD by taking care of yourself. Get enough rest,eat well, exercise, and avoid caffeine and nicotine which can make you feel more anxious. Do not turn to drinking and drugs for escape–they will not help you heal. Take up a hobby or sport so you have an outlet. Be sure to stay connected to family and friends and avoid becoming isolated. Even if you do not talk to them about the trauma, knowing that you have people around you who care is important. Finally, find a support group–people who have been through what you have been through can be lifelines when it comes to recovery. Your mental health care provider can help you find the right group.
The bottom line is, if you or a loved one, is suffering from PTSD, get help. What you experienced cannot be undone, but with treatment, you can overcome the suffering and reclaim your life.