Many people are now acquainted with the term PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) as the reaction veterans can experience after returning from combat. PTSD and related conditions are certainly part of the experience of war. Determining and implementing appropriate responses to the many affected vets has been a focus in the military and the VA for several decades. Excellent information for vets and their loved ones can be found at www.maketheconnection.net/PTSD and www.ptsd.va.gov.
However, anyone who has experienced a trauma can develop PTSD or a trauma-related condition. Traumatic events happen to over half the American population and more than a quarter of the population experiences repeated trauma, which increases the likelihood of developing PTSD. Trauma may be a one-time event or an on-going condition of life.
Physical or sexual abuse, experiencing or witnessing violence in the home or neighborhood, severe life-threatening illness or death of a loved one, natural disasters, and motor vehicle accidents are the most common traumatic events experienced by the general population. Learning about a violent or accidental event in the life of a loved one is also considered to be a traumatic event, even if it was not witnessed.
Most people who experience a trauma will have symptoms at the time of the event that gradually fade away over time. Those who continue to experience a significant cluster of symptoms more than one month after the event, which happens for about 5-15% of those exposed to trauma, have developed a delayed and/or prolonged reaction called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Some people do not develop full-blown PTSD but may continue to suffer some specific trauma-related symptoms that interfere with their functioning. These reactions, often called trauma-related conditions, may be focused on one area of the trauma rather than affecting several aspects of functioning, as in PTSD.
Traumatic experiences activate the fight or flight response, causing a physiological reaction. Usually those reactions subside when the situation ends or the person returns to safety. In PTSD, that physiological response persists after the dangerous situation ends, manifesting as a continuous low-level arousal that is thrown into high gear when the individual encounters reminders of the event.
Encountering people, places or objects related to the incident may cause the person with PTSD to react as if the trauma were happening again, with resulting increased heart rate, sweating or emotional responses. The survivor may begin to avoid people or situations that remind him or her of the event and thereby avoid the emotional and physiological responses. This attempt to avoid symptoms, however, can limit an individual’s life and end up increasing the problems caused by the trauma.
The good news about PTSD is that it can be successfully treated in a number of ways. Most approaches to treatment combine medication with psychotherapy. Therapies for PTSD and trauma-related conditions often include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been proven to be successful in treating these conditions. In this type of therapy, the individual learns to become aware of feelings, thoughts and beliefs connected to the trauma and how to cope with them. Exposure Therapy, which includes repeatedly reviewing the event and approaching previously avoided situations while practicing relaxation, is helpful for some people with PTSD. Treatment may also focus on substance use, because people with PTSD often “self-medicate” in an attempt to deal with their severe symptoms.
Diet, exercise, and practices such as yoga and mindfulness are also important components of treatments for PTSD. Because of the physiological arousal associated with the disorder, PTSD affects the body as well as the mind and is often associated with increased risk for physical illness. These approaches to healing allow the individual to prevent, ameliorate or even reverse physical consequences of the disorder and help with stress management.
If you have experienced a traumatic event and are having sleep difficulties, nightmares or are emotionally numb, irritable or angry, be sure to tell your primary care provider or therapist about your symptoms and ask if your symptoms could be related to the trauma. The National Center for PTSD has a webpage entitled “How to Talk Your Doctor About Trauma and PTSD”, which includes a checklist that can be completed and printed. It is available at www.ptsd.va.gov/public/assessment/trauma-symptom-checklist.asp.
Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist