Sometimes trauma can haunt a person after experiencing one or more difficult and painful events, affecting their ability to live a normal, daily life. About 70 percent of adults in the U.S. will experience some type of traumatic event at some point in their lives, and among these people about 20 percent will go on to develop the condition called post traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD).
The U.S Department of Veteran Affairs states that PTSD is a mental health problem that commonly occurs in veterans following combat. However, someone certainly doesn’t have to serve in the military to deal with symptoms of post traumatic stress. PTSD can affect both children and adults who have dealt with completely different types of traumatizing events. These events don’t necessarily have anything to do with war-time experiences or violence. Risk factors for suffering from PTSD include: surviving a natural disaster, getting into a car accident, dealing with another type of sudden illness or injury, and suffering from abuse, neglect, domestic violence or sexual assault.
Psychiatrists and psychotherapists who treat patients with PTSD typically use a combination of approaches to help patients deal with symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, depression and social isolation. These can include medications (when needed), “talk therapy” or counseling, group support, and other natural outlets for negative emotions, like exercise or meditation.
What is PTSD?
The definition of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is “a psychiatric disorder that occurs following the experience or witnessing of a life-threatening event.”
PTSD (or post traumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem. It typically occurs after someone has experienced or witnessed a life-threatening event. These events may include war combat, a natural disaster, abuse or assault, an accident, illness or sudden death of a loved one.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must meet the following criteria for at least one month:
Have at least one reoccurring negative symptom
At least one “avoidance” symptom (refusal to express emotions, refusal to visit a certain location, having a phobia of certain events or activities that bring us painful memories, etc.)
At least two “arousal” and “reactivity” symptoms (such as anger, aggression, rage, trouble sleeping, being easily startled or “on edge”, etc.)
At least two cognition and mood symptoms (such as anxiety, depression, strong feelings of guilt, brain fog, trouble concentrating, loss of memory, etc.)
Common PTSD Symptoms & Warning Signs
Any time you experience something that is very threatening, scary, shocking or deeply upsetting, it’s normal to deal with uncomfortable emotions and sometimes to even display maladaptive behaviors. Most people experience at least some type of trauma at some point in their lives. But the majority do not deal with PTSD as a result. People who have “normal” coping mechanisms usually recover naturally from initial symptoms due to shock or sadness within a short time period.
What makes PTSD symptoms different from negative emotions that are considered normal aspects of grief or healing?
In those who don’t have PTSD, an upsetting or dangerous event can cause serious symptoms. But the symptoms usually go away after a few weeks (this is called acute stress disorder, or ASD). On the contrary, long after the dangerous or upsetting event is over, people experiencing post-traumatic stress will still feel very anxious, unable to express themselves, and in general “not themselves.” PTSD symptoms usually begin shortly after the event takes place. Typically symptoms start within three months and last for up to a year. However, sometimes abnormal symptoms might not appear for up to several years after the event has ended. This delay can sometimes make seeking help and getting a proper diagnosis a complicated issue.
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, a patient’s symptoms must:
Meet the criteria described above
Last more than one month
Be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work
According to experts, PTSD is often (but not always) accompanied by changes in mood. These changes may include depression, anxiety, social isolation and substance abuse.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, some of the most common symptoms of PTSD include:
Having flashbacks (reliving the trauma via memories and bodily sensations over and over again)
Physical symptoms of anxiety including a racing heart, sweating, inability to think clearly, etc.
Nightmares or strange dreams, insomnia, and difficulty getting enough rest
Having frightening thoughts that appear to come out of nowhere and last for several hours
Feeling very anxious when encountering images, words, objects or situations that are reminders of the traumatic event
Avoiding talking to anybody else about thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
Refusal to do certain things, or making changes in one’s personal routine, in order to avoid scary triggers or memories (this can include driving, going on vacation, being in an intimate relationship, etc.)
Being tense, on edge and easily startled
Having angry outbursts and sometimes being violent or aggressive with family and strangers
Sometimes difficulty having a normal job, completing tasks due to lack of concentration, learning and remembering new or old information
Other symptoms tied to high stress levels, such as changes in appetite or weight, headaches, digestive issues and skin irritation
Higher risk for substance abuse (including medications, drugs or alcohol)
Depression (ongoing negative thoughts about oneself or the world), distorted feelings of guilt or blame, social isolation due to feeling alienated or misunderstood, loss of interest in enjoyable activities or hobbies due to low motivation, and in severe cases suicidal thoughts
Children suffering from PTSD can also deal with symptoms like inability to open up to others or connect, trouble sleeping, difficulty learning, bed-wetting, or acting very “clingy” with caregivers. Teens can sometimes cause problems in school, be disrespectful to teachers or authority figures, be aggressive and violent.
How long do PTSD symptoms last? Every person has a different experience; some overcome their symptoms and reach a stage considered to be “recovery” within about six months. Others deal with symptoms for years. Getting professional help from a therapist, seeking support from a group of peers or family and friends, and sometimes considering medication can all decrease the odds that PTSD will remain chronic and debilitating for many years.