Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often develops following a traumatic event in someone’s life, leaving the sufferer to struggle with vivid flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks.
The U.S. National Center for PTSD estimates that about 6% of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Women are twice as likely to experience the condition as men, and veterans and children may also be more susceptible.
To help you better understand PTSD, let’s examine what the condition is, plus learn its main symptoms, causes, risk factors and treatments, including medications and therapies that are backed by science.
What is PTSD?
“Clinically when we think about PTSD, it is a reaction to a traumatic event,” Cleveland Clinic staff psychologist Dr. Chivonna Childs said in a podcast.
“That reaction can be flashbacks, nightmares about the event, feeling as if we’re reliving the events, being triggered by people, places, things, situations that remind us of the event. That can send us into what we would normally feel like is a panic attack,” she explained.
According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), people can develop PTSD from:
- Experiencing a traumatic event firsthand
- Witnessing a trauma happening to others
- Learning about traumatic events after the fact.
The condition may also manifest as complex PTSD (C-PTSD). The CPTSD Foundation states that C-PTSD is the result of trauma that’s inescapable and happens repeatedly over a period of time, especially during childhood. It usually develops because of firsthand traumatic experiences and involves betrayals of trust and security.
“PTSD is often associated with a one-time experience or a single-incident trauma,” Brickel and Associates director and lead therapist Robyn E. Brickel said in an article. “C-PTSD is different, however, from single-incident trauma because the impact on the nervous system around attachment or relationships becomes more deeply ingrained. C-PTSD is relationship trauma.”
The NIMH states that you may be diagnosed with PTSD if you experience some combination of the following symptoms, they last for over a month and they’re severe enough to interfere with your work or relationships:
- Having terrifying thoughts or flashbacks
- Having nightmares
- Feeling tense and jumpy
- Experiencing outbursts of emotions
- Having sleeping issues
- Suppressing your feelings and thoughts about the trauma
- Steering clear of people, places and things that might make you recall the trauma
- Experiencing a lack of clarity about the trauma
- Losing interest in people and activities you once enjoyed
- Having an unfavorable view of yourself and the world around you
- Experiencing distorted feelings like guilt.
Common causes of PTSD
While the causes of PTSD are not fully understood, NIMH notes that it can be triggered by several types of events and situations in your life, such as:
- Living through dangerous events and traumas
- Getting hurt
- Seeing another person hurt, or seeing a dead body
- Childhood trauma
- Feeling horror, helplessness or extreme fear
- Having little or no social support after the event
- Dealing with extra stress after the event, such as loss of a loved one, pain and injury, or loss of a job or home
- Having a history of mental illness or substance abuse.
PTSD risk factors
Not everyone who experiences, witnesses or learns about a traumatic event develops PTSD. NIMH outlines several factors that can increase your PTSD risk:
- A history of mental health or substance abuse issues
- Trauma in childhood
- High levels of stress in your daily life
- A lack of social support
- Experiencing dangerous or traumatic events
- Feeling or being helpless
- Feeling extreme fear
- Witnessing others being traumatized or hurt.
Racial trauma also increases the risk of developing PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD.
For those diagnosed with PTSD, psychiatry.org states that several types of cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) may be used to treat the condition, including:
- Cognitive processing therapy: to change negative beliefs by identifying and addressing them
- Trauma-focused CBT: to use with children and teens and includes cognitive behavioral techniques, family support, trauma-sensitive interventions and human-centered philosophies
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing for PTSD: focuses people on the trauma while using certain eye movements that help reduce the emotions surrounding traumatic memories
- Prolonged exposure therapy: gradually exposes people to their trauma triggers and reduce their impact over time.
PTSD medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI) may also be used to treat the condition. In addition, alternative therapies like breathing retraining can calm you down, while recent research published in the journal PLOS ONE showed that service dogs can help you better manage and improve your PTSD symptoms.
“It’s a multilayered issue so we need multilayers of treatment, so that we can be well-rounded, well-grounded and very well-supported,” Childs said. “Because at the end of the day, that’s what we all deserve… a quality of life.”
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