Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that some people get after seeing or living through a dangerous event.

When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in PTSD, this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.

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Who gets PTSD?

Anyone can get PTSD at any age. This includes war veterans and survivors of physical and sexual assault, abuse, accidents, disasters, and many other serious events.

Not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. Some people get PTSD after a friend or family member experiences danger or is harmed. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one can also cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can cause many symptoms. These symptoms can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Re-experiencing symptoms:
    • Flashbacks - reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating.
    • Bad dreams.
    • Frightening thoughts.
  2. Avoidance symptoms:
    • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience.
    • Feeling emotionally numb.
    • Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry.
    • Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past.
    • Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.

Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.

  1. Hyperarousal symptoms:
    • Being easily startled.
    • Feeling tense or “on edge”.
    • Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.

It’s natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they might be PTSD. Some people with post-traumatic stress disorder don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months.

 

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Do children react differently than adults?

Children and teens can have extreme reactions to trauma, but their symptoms may not be the same as adults. In very young children, these symptoms can include:

  • Bedwetting, when they’d learned how to use the toilet before.
  • Forgetting how or being unable to talk.
  • Acting out the scary event during playtime.
  • Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult.

Older children and teens usually show symptoms more like those seen in adults. They may also develop disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors. Older children and teens may feel guilty for not preventing injury or deaths. They may also have thoughts of revenge.

How is PTSD detected?

To be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a person must have all of the following for at least 1 month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom.
  • At least three avoidance symptoms.
  • At least two hyperarousal symptoms.
  • Symptoms that make it hard to go about daily life, go to school or work, be with friends, and take care of important tasks.

Why do some people get PTSD and other people do not?

Why do some people get PTSD and other people do not?

It is important to remember that not everyone who lives through a dangerous event gets PTSD. In fact, most will not get the disorder.

Many factors play a part in whether a person will get PTSD. Some of these are risk factors that make a person more likely to get PTSD. Other factors, called resilience factors, can help reduce the risk of the disorder. Some of these risk and resilience factors are present before the trauma and others become important during and after a traumatic event.

Risk factors for PTSD include:

  • Living through dangerous events and traumas.
  • Having a history of mental illness.
  • Getting hurt.
  • Seeing people hurt or killed.
  • 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.

Resilience factors that may reduce the risk of PTSD include:

  • Seeking out support from other people, such as friends and family.
  • Finding a support group after a traumatic event.
  • Feeling good about one’s own actions in the face of danger.
  • Having a coping strategy, or a way of getting through the bad event and learning from it.
  • Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear.

Researchers are studying the importance of various risk and resilience factors. With more study, it may be possible someday to predict who is likely to get Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and prevent it.

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What efforts are under way to improve the detection and treatment of PTSD?

What efforts are under way to improve the detection and treatment of PTSD?

Researchers have learned a lot in the last decade about fear, stress, and PTSD. Scientists are also learning about how people form memories. This is important because creating very powerful fear-related memories seems to be a major part of post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers are also exploring how people can create “safety” memories to replace the bad memories that form after a trauma.

PTSD research also includes the following examples:

  • Using powerful new research methods, such as brain imaging and the study of genes, to find out more about what leads to PTSD, when it happens, and who is most at risk.

  • Trying to understand why some people get post-traumatic stress disorder and others do not. Knowing this can help health care professionals predict who might get PTSD and provide early treatment.

  • Focusing on ways to examine pre-trauma, trauma, and post-trauma risk and resilience factors all at once.

  • Looking for treatments that reduce the impact traumatic memories have on our emotions.

  • Improving the way people are screened for PTSD, given early treatment, and tracked after a mass trauma.

  • Developing new approaches in self-testing and screening to help people know when it’s time to call a doctor.

  • Testing ways to help family doctors detect and treat PTSD or refer people with post-traumatic stress disorder to mental health specialists.

(National Institute of Mental Health; http://www.nimh.nih.gov)