PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is triggered by a traumatic event - it is a kind of anxiety. The sufferer of PTSD may have experienced or seen an event that caused extreme fear, shock and/or a feeling of helplessness. Most of us experience a brief period of difficulty adjusting and coping with traumatic events. However, we gradually get better with time and healthy coping methods.
On the other hand, there are times when symptoms get worse and may last for several months, or years. This study explains how PTSD can surface two years after a traumatic event. Another study found that one in eight Lower Manhattan residents likely had PTSD two to three years after the 9/11 attacks.
The sufferer's life may be completely disrupted - in such cases the person suffers from PTSD. To prevent PTSD from becoming a long-term illness it is crucial that the sufferer receive treatment as soon as possible.
According to MediLexicon's medical dictionary, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is:
- Development of characteristic long-term symptoms following a psychologically traumatic event that is generally outside the range of usual human experience; symptoms include persistently re-experiencing the event and attempting to avoid stimuli reminiscent of the trauma, numbed responsiveness to environmental stimuli, a variety of autonomic and cognitive dysfunctions, and dysphoria.
- A DSM diagnosis that is established when the specified criteria are met." (DSM = an abbreviation for the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
A person can commonly suffer from PTSD after experiencing or witnessing one of the following events:
PTSD can often be diagnosed in returning military service members.
- Military confrontations
- Natural disasters
- Serious accidents
- Terrorist attacks
- Violent deaths
- Personal assaults
- Any situation which triggers fear, shock, horror, and/or helplessness.
How common is PTSD?
Any of us can suffer from PTSD, given the right circumstances. It is estimated that approximately 5% of men and 10% of women suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD can occur at any age. According to the NHS (National Health Service, UK), about 40% of sufferers developed PTSD after a loved one (or somebody very close) died suddenly. Typically, a person with PTSD relives the horrific event through nightmares and has flashbacks as well; there may be problems with concentration and sleeping, as well as feelings of isolation and detachment from life. Symptoms can reach such a point that the sufferer's ability to live daily life is seriously undermined.
Symptoms of PTSD
The majority of people who are exposed to a traumatic event will experience the symptoms listed below. They will usually taper off and eventually disappear within a few days or weeks. For some people, the symptoms may persist, and even become worse over time:
- Frightening thoughts
- Sweating and shaking
- Refusal to discuss the event
- Avoiding things that remind the person of the event
- Feeling detached and estranged from others
- Feeling emotionally and mentally numbed
- Unable to remember some aspects of the event
- Reduced interest in life
- Flight/fight syndrome
- Difficulties concentrating
- Insomnia (problems either falling asleep, or waking and then not being able to get back to sleep)
- Outburst of anger
- Over-alertness to possible danger
- Sensations that the event is recurring
- Feelings of guilt
- Long-term behavioral traits
- Over-consumption of alcohol
- Drug dependency
- Relationship breakdowns
- Anxiety disorders
- Severe depression
- Stomach problems
- Chest pain
- Body aches and pains
- Weaker immune system
- Problems at work
- A greater perceived disability attributed to chronic pain, this study indicates. However, this study found the opposite - that PTSD patients were less sensitive to pain.
People with PTSD may find that the symptoms come and go, while others will have severe and chronic symptoms (in medicine 'chronic' means long-lasting, unremitting). Certain noises, such as a car backfiring can bring symptoms back or quickly increase their severity, as can other reminders, such as a news report, or a smell.
When to see a doctor
People may have symptoms after a traumatic event but not have PTSD - the feelings may include fear and anxiety, as well as a lack of concentration, sadness and changes in sleeping and eating habits. There may even be bouts of crying. This does not necessarily mean that the person has PTSD. However, if these disturbing symptoms persist for more than a month, and if they are severe enough to impede the person's ability to get back to normal life, he/she should see a health care professional. Prompt treatment with a qualified professional will significantly help prevent the PTSD symptoms from getting worse.
There are times when the PTSD symptoms become so severe than the person considers harming himself/herself. If this happens emergency services should be sought, or help from a family member or a good friend.
Causes of PTSD
Experts cannot fully explain why some people develop PTSD while others do not. People of all ages are potential PTSD sufferers. It is especially common among people who have served in combat (often referred to as 'shell-shock, battle fatigue, or combat stress'). We do know that there are some risk factors (a risk factor may raise the chances of PTSD occurring).
Risk factors for PTSD
- Traumatic events that commonly trigger PTSD in men - these include combat exposure, rape, childhood neglect and physical abuse.
- Traumatic events that commonly trigger PTSD in women - these include rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, childhood physical abuse.
- Other traumatic events that trigger PTSD - these include fire, natural disasters, muggings, robbery, assault, civil conflict, automobile accident, airplane crash, torture, kidnapping, terrorist attack, and being attacked by an animal.
- Life threatening medical diagnosis or a major medical event - this study found that breast cancer patients who have a prior history of mood and anxiety disorders are at a much higher risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder following their diagnosis. Another study revealed that the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and PTSD in patients following ICU hospitalization is about 20%. Support from hospital staff and family is an important factor in preventing post-traumatic stress disorder after a major intensive-care intervention, according to researchers from the Charite Hospital in Berlin, Germany.
- Family history of mental health problems - people who have a close relative with mental health problems, or those who experience child abuse are at higher risk of developing PTSD if they experience traumatic events.
- Gender - a woman is four times more likely to develop PTSD than a man. Psychiatrists say this is probably because women run a higher risk of experiencing interpersonal violence, such as sexual violence. In times of war the risk may be higher for men, as a percentage of the total population. A study found that although males experience more traumatic events on average than do females, females are more likely to meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
- Genetics - scientists are beginning to suggest that certain genetic factors may raise a person's risk of developing PTSD. Researchers at UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences found a genetic connection between PTSD, depression and anxiety.
- Physical factors - we know that the hippocampus - a part of the brain linked to emotions and memory - appears different in MRI scans in people with PTSD. These alterations are probably linked to flashbacks and memory problems.
- Poor physical or mental health - military personnel with diminished mental or physical health before combat exposure are more vulnerable to developing PTSD after deployment, according to US researchers.
- Watching tragedies on TV - a study indicates that watching tragedies, such as 9/11 on TV, can cause PTSD in some people, even though they were not physically there.
- Childbirth - This study reveals that childbirth triggers many more cases of PTSD than people realize.
- Abnormal hormone response to stress - according studies, levels of hormones are abnormal among people with PTSD when they respond to stress. When we are in extreme danger our bodies produce natural opiates which trigger a reaction in the body when we are put under extreme stress or into a fight or flight situation. These opiates deaden the senses and dull pain. People with PTSD appear to produce high levels of these chemicals when there is no danger present. This may be why they feel detached and emotionless.
- Panic attacks and later PTSD susceptibility not linked - an interesting study found that if a person experiences a panic attack during a traumatic event that they will be no more likely to suffer from PTSD in the future.
On the next page we look at how PTSD is diagnosed, the available treatments and therapies for PTSD sufferers and the possible complications caused by the condition.