Posttraumatic Stress Disorderr

Causes and Symptoms of PTSD

What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) describes the problems many people have after experiencing a traumatic event.

What causes PTSD?

Unfortunately, the types of traumatic events that can cause PTSD are fairly common. These events vary and include things such as house fires, physical and sexual assault, military combat, and car accidents.

You do not need to experience an event directly in order to have symptoms of PTSD. Witnessing a traumatic event can cause feelings of fear, helplessness and horror, and can also lead to PTSD.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD includes three major types of difficulties:

  1. Re-experiencing the trauma
  2. Avoidance and/or emotional numbness
  3. Feeling on edge or more wary of danger.

Individuals can re-experience the trauma through:

  • recurring and upsetting thoughts about what happened
  • recurring nightmares
  • acting or feeling like the trauma is happening again
  • being extremely upset when they are reminded of the trauma
  • experiencing physical reactions to reminders of the trauma (like a racing heart or sweaty palms)

Individuals may avoid or feel numb through:

  • trying not to think, talk, or have feelings about the trauma
  • trying to stay away from people, places, and activities that remind them of what happened
  • being unable to remember important parts of what happened
  • having less interest in things they used to enjoy
  • not feeling close to other people
  • feeling emotionally numb or like they can't have strong feelings
  • believing that their future plans and goals won't come true

Individuals may feel more on edge or wary of danger, which may cause them to:

  • have trouble sleeping
  • be really irritable or have angry outbursts
  • have trouble concentrating
  • always be on the lookout for danger
  • be very easily startled or frightened

All individuals with PTSD have experienced or witnessed at least one traumatic event, and some have experienced many traumatic incidents over the course of their lives. Because of this, it's no surprise that many individuals with PTSD also experience other problems in addition to PTSD.

However, it is important to note that while many upsetting things can happen in one's life, not all upsetting events lead to PTSD. You should speak to a counselor or psychologist if you or someone you know has any of the symptoms listed above.

Who develops PTSD?

Not everyone who lives through a dangerous event will get PTSD. In fact, most will not get the disorder. For example, many more people experience a disaster than a rape, yet PTSD is much more likely following a rape than following a disaster.

In addition to the nature of the trauma, researchers have identified many other factors that also influence whether or not a person will get PTSD. Researchers have also identified factors known as resilience factors, which can help protect an individual from developing PTSD.

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.

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 continuing to explore different risk and resilience factors in hopes that one day it may be possible to prevent those who are most at risk for developing PTSD from doing so.

How is PTSD treated?

Although a number of treatments for PTSD exist, the Institute of Medicine (2007) has concluded that Prolonged Exposure (PE) Therapy is the gold standard approach for treating PTSD, as it is the only treatment that has enough evidence to support its efficacy.

PTSD Can Be Treated

How do I know if I need help?

You may want to consider getting help if you have experienced any kind of trauma and if difficulties related to the trauma are interfering with your daily life. However, it is important to note that symptoms of depression or anxiety may not necessarily seem to be related to your trauma. You may therefore want to consider seeing a professional even if your symptoms of anxiety or depression do not seem related to your trauma, as only a professional can diagnose PTSD.

What if I or someone I know is suicidal?

If you are thinking about harming yourself, or know someone who is, tell someone who can help immediately:

  • Call your doctor.
  • Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room to get immediate help or ask a friend or family member to help you do these things.
  • Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889) to talk to a trained counselor.
  • Make sure you or the suicidal person is not left alone.

How can I help a friend who has PTSD?

If you know someone who has PTSD, their symptoms may affect you too. The first and most important thing you can do to help a friend or relative is to help him or her get the right diagnosis and treatment. You may need to encourage your friend to make an appointment and go with him or her to see the doctor. Encourage him or her to stay in treatment, or to seek different treatment if his or her symptoms don't start to get better after 6 to 8 weeks.

To help a friend or relative, you can:

  • Offer emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
  • Learn about PTSD so you can understand what your friend or relative is experiencing.
  • Talk to your friend or relative, and listen carefully.
  • Listen to feelings your friend or relative expresses and be understanding of situations that may trigger PTSD symptoms.
  • Invite your friend or relative out for enjoyable activities such as walks, outings, and other activities.
  • Remind your friend or relative that, with time and treatment, he or she can get better.
  • Never ignore comments by your friend or relative about harming him or herself, and report such comments to your friend's or relative's therapist or doctor.

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