Post-traumatic stress disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a combination of symptoms that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing one or more traumatic incidents. Our first thought often goes to returning soldiers who have faced death and other horrific events during their deployments. But, PTSD also affects other groups of people.
For example, survivors of physical or sexual abuse, either in childhood or as adults, have a high rate of PTSD. Being involved in natural disasters such as hurricanes or floods can cause PTSD, too. It is also possible to develop PTSD after witnessing a shocking event, for example a car accident, or seeing someone being killed.
The symptoms of PTSD include nightmares and other sleep problems, heightened anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Memory problems, depressive symptoms, anger outbursts, guilt, and relationship problems are also common symptoms. People who suffer from PTSD often avoid situations that might remind them of the initial incident. They try to prevent so-called flashbacks — moments when they feel as if they are back at the traumatic event. They experience the same feelings of terror and helplessness, as well as the physical reactions they experienced at the time of the event.
This can be highly confusing for friends and family members or other people who can’t see what’s going on inside the traumatized person’s mind. A seemingly benign setting can trigger a response that is wildly out of proportion. It is not helpful for a person with PTSD to be in a situation like this. On the contrary, it can intensify the symptoms and make healing more difficult.
Interestingly, there is a wide range of responses to traumatic events. Some people experience no permanent harm, while others develop PTSD. It is not completely clear why some people are more resilient than others, but we know about the influence of some factors.
For example, victims of rape report that being blamed for what happened makes it harder for them to cope and more likely to develop PTSD. Repeated exposure to trauma, such as several deployments to a war zone, increases the likelihood of PTSD. People who already suffer from depression or other mental health problems are more prone to develop PTSD. Additional factors such as childhood experiences, personality, and support systems also influence how a person copes with trauma.
Difficult life events, such as loss of a job or a divorce, can cause a huge amount of stress but usually don’t result in PTSD. The problems are generally less severe and intrusive and often go away after some time. However, lots of strategies that are used for people with PTSD can also help people with less-critical problems.
Occasionally, symptoms of PTSD weaken over time and may even go away completely. However, most people need professional assistance in order to address this problem. Fortunately, psychotherapy and medication are effective treatments that can help people who suffer from PTSD. Medication can ease some of the symptoms, for example, anxiety, sleep problems or depression. Psychotherapy helps by enabling the client to process the traumatic event and by teaching coping skills to address symptoms. Often, a therapist will include family members in the treatment to improve communication and strengthen the support system.
The combination of psychotherapy and medication is the most effective way to ease the suffering and help a survivor of a traumatic event to lead a normal life again.
- Antje Rath
- June 2014