Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Written by Maureen Donohue | Published on July 15, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating anxiety disorder that occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event that involves either a real or perceived threat of injury or death. This can include a natural disaster, combat, an assault, physical or sexual abuse, or other trauma.

PTSD sufferers have a heightened sense of danger and impending doom. Their natural “fight or flight response” is damaged, causing them to feel stressed or fearful even in safe situations.

Once called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” PTSD has recently received more public attention because of the high number of war veterans who have the disorder. However, PTSD can happen to anyone at any age. PTSD occurs as a response to chemical changes in the brain and is not the result of a character flaw or weakness. (NIMH)

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

The symptoms of PTSD can disrupt normal activities and interfere with your ability to function. They can be triggered by words, sounds, or situations that act as reminders of trauma. Symptoms fall into the following three groups:

Reliving, which consists of:

  • flashbacks, in which it feels as if the event is occurring over and over
  • intrusive, vivid memories of the event
  • frequent nightmares about the event
  • mental or physical discomfort when reminded of the event

Avoidance, which includes:

  • emotional apathy
  • detachment from or lack of interest in daily activities
  • amnesia (memory loss) about the actual event
  • inability to express feelings
  • avoidance of people or situations that are reminders of the event

Increased arousal, which is characterized by:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • startling easily
  • exaggerated response to startling events
  • constantly feeling on guard (hypervigilance)
  • irritability or bouts of anger
  • difficulty falling or staying asleep

People with PTSD may be plagued by guilt, worry, and depression. In addition, they are susceptible to panic attacks, which can cause:

  • agitation or excitability
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness or fainting
  • racing or pounding heart
  • headache

When to Seek Help for PTSD

If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it is important to remember that you are not alone. Millions of men and women are living with PTSD in the U.S., with more cases diagnosed each year. (NDVA)

If you have frequent upsetting thoughts, are unable to control your actions, or fear that you might hurt yourself or others, seek help right away.

How Is PTSD Diagnosed?

There is no specific test to diagnose PTSD. This condition may be difficult to diagnose because sufferers are reluctant to recall the precipitating trauma or discuss their symptoms. A mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, is best qualified to diagnose PTSD.

To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must have experienced all of the following for onemonth or longer:

  • at least one reliving symptom
  • at least three avoidance symptoms
  • at least two increased arousal symptoms

Your symptoms must be serious enough to interfere with daily activities, making it difficult to go to work or school, or to be around friends and family members. (NIMH)

How Is PTSD Treated?

If you are diagnosed with PTSD, your doctor will likely prescribe a combination of therapies, including:

  • cognitive behavioral (“talk”) therapy to encourage you to remember the event and express your feelings about it. This can help desensitize you to the trauma and reduce your symptoms.
  • a support group where you can discuss your feelings with other PTSD sufferers. This will help you realize that your symptoms are not unusual and that you are not alone.
  • medications such antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep aids to decrease the frequency of intrusive, frightening thoughts and allow you to get some rest. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two antidepressants for the specific treatment of PTSD. They are sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil).

Many people who suffer from PTSD turn to illicit drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms. While these methods may temporarily alleviate symptoms of PTSD, they do not treat the underlying cause of stress and can make some symptoms worse. If you have developed a problem with substance abuse, your therapist may also recommend a 12-step program to reduce your dependency on drugs or alcohol.

What Is the Outlook for People With PTSD?

If you have PTSD, early treatment can help alleviate your symptoms and give you effective strategies for coping with the intrusive thoughts, memories, and flashbacks.

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