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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event, causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks of the ordeal. Persons with PTSD often feel chronically, emotionally numb.

PTSD was first brought to public attention by war veterans and was once referred to as "shell shock" or "battle fatigue." The likelihood of developing PTSD depends on the severity and duration of the event, as well as the person's nearness to it.

What triggers PTSD to develop?

The event(s) that triggers PTSD may be:

  • Something that occurred in the person's life

  • Something that occurred in the life of someone close to him or her

  • Something the person witnessed

Examples include:

  • Serious accidents (such as car or train wrecks)

  • Natural disasters (such as floods or earthquakes)

  • Man-made tragedies (such as bombings, a plane crash)

  • Violent personal attacks (such as a mugging, rape, torture, being held captive, or kidnapping)

  • Military combat

  • Abuse in childhood

Characteristics of PTSD

Persons with PTSD experience extreme emotional, mental, and physical distress when exposed to situations that remind them of the traumatic event. Some may repeatedly relive the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections or flashbacks during the day, and may also experience the following:

  • Sleep problems

  • Depression

  • Feeling detached or numb

  • Feeling jittery or "on guard"

  • Being easily startled

  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy

  • Trouble feeling affectionate

  • Feeling irritable, more aggressive than before, or even violent

  • Avoidance of certain places or situations that bring back memories

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

The symptoms of PTSD fall into 4 broad categories:

  • Re-experiencing the event

  • Avoiding stimuli associated with the event

  • Mood and cognitive symptoms

  • Increased physiologic arousal

The following are the most common symptoms of PTSD. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Irritability

  • Violent outbursts

  • Trouble working or socializing

  • Flashbacks or intrusive images (A person having a flashback—which can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings—usually believes that the traumatic event is happening all over again.)

  • Losing touch with reality

  • Reenacting the event for a period of seconds or hours or, very rarely, days

The symptoms of PTSD may resemble other psychiatric conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosed?

Not every person who experiences a trauma develops PTSD, or experiences symptoms at all. PTSD is diagnosed only if symptoms last more than one month. In those who do have PTSD, symptoms usually begin within three months of the trauma, but can also start months or years later.

PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood, and may be accompanied by the following:

  • Depression

  • Substance abuse

  • Anxiety

The length of the illness varies. Some people recover within six months, others have symptoms that last much longer.

Treatment for PTSD

Specific treatment for PTSD will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

As persons with PTSD are more susceptible to other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse, treatment is critical and may include:

  • Medication (i.e., antidepressants and/or anxiety-reducing medications)

  • Psychological treatment

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