Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder. It develops in some people that witness or experience terrifying life-threatening events. PTSD can cause a variety of psychiatric and physical symptoms. People with PTSD may experience sudden vivid memories or nightmares and may feel like they are re-living the traumatic event. PTSD can cause strong emotions or make people feel emotionally numb. They may startle easily, appear “jumpy,” and avoid situations that remind them of the event. Untreated PTSD can be very debilitating; however, treatments for PTSD have good success rates.
The exact cause of PTSD is unknown. It results in some people that experience, are threatened with, witness, or learn of an extremely traumatic event. The event may threaten their life or the life of others. Such events may include abuse, rape, torture, assault, crime, war, terrorism, disasters, or accidents. The highest incidences of PTSD occur in people that have been raped, in military combat, or captured and tortured in war. For some people, there appears to be an inherited component to PTSD. People with close relatives that experienced PTSD or depression appear to have a greater risk of developing PTSD. Women experience the highest incidence of PTSD. It can occur in people of all ages, including children.
Symptoms of PTSD usually develop within the first three months following an event, but frequently occur several months or even years later. The symptoms of PTSD last for at least one month and may last longer. Some people may have one episode and for others, it may be a long-term condition.
The symptoms of PTSD are grouped into three categories: re-living the event, avoidance behavior, and increased arousal. Symptoms of reliving the event include repeated memories or physical reactions that cause distress. Out of the blue, something may trigger a memory, such as a particular sound, smell, or sight. A “flashback” is the term for the sudden replaying of memories that seem very real. You may also experience repeated dreams or nightmares about your trauma. All of these symptoms can be very debilitating and interfere with your work, school, or social life. You may avoid situations, places, objects, sounds, or people that remind you of your traumatic event. It may be difficult to remember all of the details of your event. Avoidance behavior also includes not caring about things like you used to or not having interest in activities that you used to enjoy. You may feel emotionally numb or have reduced expression of your emotions. It may be difficult for you to be affectionate to other people. You may feel like you are detached from every day life or that you do not have a future. Arousal difficulties are a set of symptoms that affect your thought processes, behavior, and emotions. You may feel irritable and have outbursts of anger. It may be difficult to concentrate as you did before. You may have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. You may startle easily or feel “jumpy.” You may feel hypervigilant or “on guard” or on “high-alert” when there is no actual threat. You may also feel anxious, stressed, tense and unsafe at times when you actually are safe and not threatened.
PTSD may affect your physical health. You may feel faint or feel your heart beating in your chest. You may experience dizziness or fainting. Your skin may look pale. PTSD can cause a headache or fever.
Some people feel “survivor’s guilt,” guilt because they survived a tragedy when others did not. You may be more irritable, agitated, or excitable. Depression, anxiety, phobia, and substance abuse are other conditions that may accompany PTSD. If you feel overwhelmed and suicidal, you should go to a hospital emergency room or call your local emergency medical services, usually 911.
A psychiatrist can begin to diagnose PTSD after reviewing your medical history and reviewing your symptoms. You should tell your doctor about your symptoms, their severity, when they occur, and how long they last. Your doctor will ask you questions to help diagnose PTSD and rule out other conditions. Your doctor will evaluate all of your information and responses to determine if your symptoms meet the specific diagnosis for PTSD and any other co-existing conditions. A correct diagnosis is necessary for accurate treatment.
PTSD that is diagnosed and treated early is associated with the best results. However, most cases of PTSD have good results with treatment. Treatment can include therapy, medication, or both. Therapy may be individualized or group therapy. Group therapy can be very supportive. Researchers have found that people with good support systems—group therapy members, friends, family, co-workers, or clergy—tend to have better outcomes.